(originally published on August 11, 2014)
“All is ephemeral, fame and the famous as well” – Marcus Aurelius
It was a shock to learn today that Robin Williams, known no doubt worldwide for his many talents, died at the age of sixty-three, an apparent suicide. It was impossible not to hear about it – it was splashed all over the social media and on all evening newscasts. What we are told is that Mr. Williams was, and had been, suffering from depression.
In one of those life is stranger than fiction parallels, I had recently been researching a very fine American singer, tenor Jerry Hadley, who also took his own life not many years ago, and apparently for the same reason, depression. Hadley had one of the loveliest voices I have ever heard. He was opera’s Golden Boy for a time, and sang all over the world for nearly a quarter of a century beginning in 1979. From what I have read about him, he was a generous and caring colleague, with charm and wit. He was a very good-looking man. He was a fine musician and was equally at home in the standard operatic literature and in contemporary works. He was also comfortable in musical theater.
He was married to a pianist, Cheryll Drake, whose photos show her to be as lovely as Jerry was handsome. She was his accompanist and mother of his two sons. It would seem Jerry Hadley had it all. Though his fame was not as widespread as Robin Williams, he was well-known and admired by opera lovers.
And yet. In 2002 Jerry and Cheryll were divorced, and for five years he did not perform. Apparently he stopped singing, and suffered from a deep depression. Whether the depression preceded the divorce or the reverse was true, the result was the same: a beautiful voice was stilled. I read that in 2007 Jerry had begun a comeback, and it seemed he was on the threshold of a second career. There was a new woman in his life. And then on July 10, 2007, he apparently shot himself in the head, suffering irreversible brain damage. He was put on life support for a time, and after being taken off the machines died two days later, on July 18.
I’m sure we will hear a great deal more about Robin Williams’ death in the days to come, and perhaps learn more about the depression he suffered that caused him to end his life. Williams was a genius. It would be difficult to find anyone in this country who was not familiar with his work. Of his many films, two I admired greatly were Awakenings and Dead Poets’ Society. In recent years I don’t recall hearing much about his impromptu comedy, but for those of us who saw him on various television variety shows and watched him launch into an impossibly funny and brilliant routine, it can only be described as “awesome.” He was one of a kind.
So here were these two gifted men, still young (Hadley was fifty-five when he died), famous on at least some level, seeming to have all the things so many people aspire to. Yet both in such despair they chose to leave the world they seemed to have at their feet. Hadley’s depression we know was of long duration; it’s possible Williams’ was as well.
I’d like to think there may be a lesson here. Mental illness still carries far too much of a stigma. If we have friends we think may be in trouble, we have to learn to reach out to them. We have to learn to reach out to them.
Depression is a terrible disease, as we learned to our sorrow once again today. Godspeed, Robin Williams. You gave us much joy. How sad that it seems you had lost it.