There may or may not be a connection between depression and brilliance, and it’s a subject people have debated for millennia. What’s sadly undeniable is the number of exceptional people whose enduring work and thoughts couldn’t keep their demons at bay, leading to tragic premature deaths that, in some cases, become as much part of their legacy as their breakthroughs. Here’s a list of 15 of the most heartbreaking genius suicides recorded over the years.
Seneca The Younger (1 BC-65 AD)
One of the most eloquent Stoics and still influential, Seneca spoke of the importance of accepting human suffering as a given and an improving experience of how to live a simple life in contentment, as well as how to approach death. He conveyed his thoughts through essays, letters and tragic plays that are still being performed. He was also bound by his need to constantly curry the Emperor Nero’s favor, a fruitless quest that ended with Seneca accused of complicity in a plot to poison the emperor. Ordered to kill himself, he began the traditional vein-slitting process, but he was too old to bleed fast. In tremendous pain, he sank himself into a warm bath to speed up the blood flow, but ended up suffocating from the steam.
Petronius (c. 27-66)
Also caught up in the turmoil of Nero’s court, Petronius is remembered for Satyricon, an enduringly surreal portrait of sexual hedonism and court life, loosely structured as a parody of The Odyssey. Written off as porn and forgotten for centuries, it’s a precisely lurid investigation of, among other things, three men all lusting after each other; the centerpiece comes early, with a detailed description of the insanely ornate dinners of the leisure class. Only Petronius’ tasteful writing and caustic eye separates him from the actions, displaying a fastidious wit. He was like that in life too, staving off creditors with an advertisement reading “Julius Proculus will sell at auction his superfluous furniture.” A favorite of Nero’s for his tastefulness, he was accused by the jealous commander of the emperor’s guard of treason. Rather than waiting for the order, he dictated a will describing Nero’s partners (named) and all their orgiastic affairs. Then he opened his veins, closing and reopening them as he bled to death, all while having dinner, giving gifts to slaves and reciting light poetry.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
The prototypical hard-luck artist, Vincent Van Gogh created the cliche for how under-appreciated genius was supposed to look. By the age of 27, he’d already failed at being at being an evangelist, selling art, tutoring French or finding love. In 1886 he moved to Paris, started living with his endlessly supportive brother Theo and went into hibernation for two years to study the Impressionists and Japanese prints. He’d created his own style, but periodic fits of depression never went away; he had himself institutionalized for a while. As word of his work was starting to spread, he went to a shield and shot himself in the chest but didn’t die for two days. Immediately afterward, of course, his work began rapidly accruing financial and cultural value.
George Eastman (1854-1932)
George Eastman didn’t invent photography. He did, however, invent flexible film rolls, one of his 32 patents, alongside the Kodak camera. Not content to change an early art form forever, he took the proceeds and invested heavily in the city of Rochester, New York, funding health care, education, the arts and (oddly) dental dispensaries in several counties. As the years caught up with him, diabetes, spinal cord degeneration, arthritis and a heart condition all took their toll. Depressed by a future of continual degeneration, Eastman exited the world with one shot to the heart. His note read: “To my friends, My work is done, why wait GE.”
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Single-handedly creating psychoanalysis, the ultimate accuracy of Sigmund Freud’s theories â€” about how the libido is behind everything, the role of dreams, childrens’ attraction to parents of the opposite sex and so on â€” is irrelevant. Without his pioneering work, there wouldn’t be anyone to question his claims. In offering primitive guidelines for how to interpret dreams and postulating the existence of the ego, id and superego, Freud changed how people thought about themselves forever, and in inventing an early form of talk therapy, he changed how they could go about making peace with themselves. Having smoked up to 20 cigars a day on a regular basis â€” he had over 30 operations for mouth cancer â€” Freud fled to London to get away from the Nazis. With his four younger sisters still in Germany (they would all die in concentration camps) and his cancer finally inoperable, Freud begged his physician to help him commit suicide, and died after three morphine doses.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Just as Freud broke through to a new way of thinking about how people communicate with themselves, Woolf articulated in print the new internal conversations people were having with themselves. Her plunges into the great stream of consciousness underpinning people’s daily lives plunged English prose into modernism in the ‘0s, even as Woolf wrote one of the most enduringly crisp feminist manifestos (A Room Of One’s Own) of the 20th century and headed up the Bloomsbury literary group. To this day, “Bloomsbury” remains synonymous with groups of writers who band together to push their craft further. Dogged by depression her life, Woolf finally headed down to the lake, her pockets filled with stones, and drowned. “I feel certain I am going mad again,” her final note said.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)
An evil genius, to be sure, Adolf Hitler’s founding of the German Third Reich, creation of the Nazis, systematic genocide of Jews and other undesirables and incitement of World War II are all well-known. Less well remembered are the specifics of his suicide. With bad news for the German army coming in steadily, Hitler retreated to his bunker and began systematically wrapping up his affairs. First he married his longtime mistress Eva Braun. Next he dictated a rambling last will and testament, affirming that history would vindicate World War II as “the most glorious and heroic manifestation of a people’s will to live.” Then he tested the effectiveness of cyanide on his beloved dog Blondi. Hearing that Mussolini and his wife’s body had been hung publicly, Hitler issued instructions to burn his body to avoid post-death humiliation. The bodies were found and burned on April 15. Stalin’s Red Army intelligence arrived on May 2; since the USSR had publicly declared Hitler’s suicide was just a trick, the lack of bodies was a political problem. The corpses were found and dug up two days later, and dental checks confirmed it was Hitler’s body. The Russians held on to the body; whether they actually flushed the ashes down Magdeburg’s sewer system is unclear.
Alan Turing (1912-1954)
British mathematician Alan Turing effectively hastened the end of World War II by two years when he cracked the Enigma encryption machine the Germans had been using to transmit secret messages. His device “won the war,” or so said Winston Churchill. After the war he began working on computers, creating the oft-cited Turing Test, in which a human and computer converse. If the human can’t tell if it’s talking to man or machine, the computer passes the test, an early benchmark for artificial intelligence. But Turing was gay — still a crime in 1950s Britain; prosecuted in 1952 and subjected to chemical castration, he overdosed on cyanide (though his mother said it was an accident). It was not until 2009 that the British government officially apologized for his treatment.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Setting new standards for both pared-down prose and macho behavior, Ernest Hemingway established himself as the pre-eminent male American writer, dedicated to the laconic documentation of the American male on safari, in war, in the bullfighting ring and so forth. After Fidel Castro’s revolution (which he supported but which made living in Cuba difficult), he returned to the United States and started deteriorating mentally. Electroshock treatment for depression at the Mayo Clinic failed, and Hemingway shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho. Befitting his image, he had a favorite gun with which to do it.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
A textbook tortured writer whose self-chronicled downward-spiral novel The Bell Jar remains mandatory reading for angsty high school girls everywhere, poet Sylvia Plath already had plenty of despair to exhibit before husband Ted Hughes (another poet) took up with Assia Gutmann Wevill. Having written in one of her last poems “Dying is an art like everything else. I do it exceptionally well,” Plath followed through, gassing herself. No one came out of this well: Hughes would have shouts of “murderer” disrupt readings for the rest of his life, and Gutmann Wevill later killed herself the exact same way, along with her daughter.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Throughout his career at the forefront of artistic progress, Russian emigre Mark Rothko moved from expressionism to the abstraction of pure colors. Where the abstract expressionists gravitated towards hysterical colors, Rothko increasingly moved towards somber, ever simpler and darker. After separating from his wife and diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, he scaled down his work on his doctor’s advice, working on canvases no higher than a yard and dabbling with acrylics. Like a true artist, he killed himself in his studio, slashing his wrists after overdosing on anti-depressants.
Yukio Mishima (1925-1970)
A three-time Nobel Prize nominee for literature, Yukio Mishima obsessed over what he perceived as the decline of Japan from feudal values that gave meaning to daily life to a barren, modern nation devoid of honor or tradition. The theme dominated much of his work, including the four-volume “Sea of Fertility” series, in which one man grows up to be haunted by his childhood friend in three different reincarnations. Heavily symbolic and increasingly despairing, these final volumes cemented his reputation. Long having been interested in physical exercise and samurai tradition, Mishima and four followers took control of a military office in Tokyo. After giving a speech attacking Japan’s post-World War II constitution, Mishima committed ritual suicide, disemboweling himself with a sword in the traditional seppuku fashion.
Albert Ayler (1936-1970)
As a boy, Albert Ayler was taught how to play the alto sax by his father. He joined his first group at age 15, then signed up for the army when he had trouble finding work. Developing his style while rehearsing with the army band, Ayler emerged in 1961 with an understanding of what free jazz could be and started recording in Sweden. John Coltrane championed his work, though critics and institutions were often confused; one concert recorded for the BBC2 was never broadcast, per the advice of their jazz experts. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of understanding for his work and depressed after his relationship with his brother deteriorated, Ayler spiraled down through institutionalizations until he jumped into Brooklyn’s East River. Rumors blamed everyone from the FBI (as part of a plan to destroy prominent black people) to the black power movement (for Ayler’s refusal to cooperate with them); in all probability, though, he was probably just depressed.
Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)
Sickly as as child, anguished by his parents’ divorce and taunted for suspected gayness in high school, Kurt Cobain grew up to change the direction of popular music permanently with Nirvana. Grunge started with their recordings, and Nevermind blasted grunge into the mainstream with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” marking the beginning of the end of the hair metal era. Addicted to heroin and ethically conflicted about Nirvana’s commercial success (Cobain’s concerns having been permanently shaped by the punk ethos and concerns about “selling out”), Cobain had to try suicide unsuccessfully once before shooting himself, instantly turning himself into a symbolic martyr for ethical ideals in a commodified musical landscape rather than a complexly self-torturing man.
Spalding Gray (1941-2004)
Spalding Gray’s father was an alcoholic, his mother prone to frequent nervous breakdowns. Gray’s early acting days involved co-founding the Wooster Group on one hand (whose troops included Willem Defoe and the late Jill Clayburgh) and acting in porn on the other. Gray found his voice when he began delivering introspective monologues dissecting his life and thoughts; armed with a table, a pitcher and glass of water and the most sparing of props, Gray hypnotized audiences without veering into solipsism. He’d struggled with depression for years before a 2001 car accident that caused unceasing physical pain. In 2004, he got on the Staten Island ferry one day and jumped into the water.