My posting about the death of Jerry Hadley made a lot of people angry, as did the unsentimental obituary I wrote for The Wall Street Journal when Arthur Miller died. One of Hadley’s fans went so far as to call me “disgusting” twice in the same e-mail, which I believe is a personal record. In both cases, the reason for much of the anger can be summed up by a Latin tag: De mortuis nil nisi bonum. The wise man is slow to quarrel with proverbs, but I’m afraid I must trump that one with a snippet of Shakespeare. He that dies pays all debts–including the debt of discretion that is owed to him, insofar as it’s ever owed to a public figure who voluntarily chooses his status.
My own view of the matter is to be found in the published sayings of Nero Wolfe:
“Marko was himself headstrong, gullible, oversanguine, and naïve. He had–”
“For shame! He’s dead, and you insult–”
“That will do!” he roared. It stopped her. He went down a few decibels. “You share the common fallacy, but I don’t. I do not insult Marko. I pay him the tribute of speaking of him and feeling about him precisely as I did when he lived; the insult would be to smear his corpse with the honey excreted by my fear of death.”
If anyone should see fit to write anything about me after I die, I hope they’ll keep that in mind.
As for the people who’ve been writing to say that I can’t possibly know anything about depression…well, what I know about it is nobody’s business. But I’ll say this much: Hadley was a talented, once-successful artist whose career had collapsed and who was on the verge of bankruptcy when he shot himself in the head. I’m sorry he did it–I wish he hadn’t–but somehow I doubt that psychotherapy would have stopped him from doing so, much less the kindness of strangers. The world is a hard place, and the opera business is, or can be, one of its toughest neighborhoods. Those who think otherwise know nothing about it. Those who pretend otherwise are kidding themselves.
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For additional thoughts on the subject of obituary writing, go here.
CultureGrrl seems to think that critics (presumably meaning, among others, me) were partly responsible for Hadley’s suicide. She may well have a larger point, but in this particular case I can assure her that the critics who wrote of his vocal difficulties in 1999 were only reporting well after the fact what was common knowledge in the opera world. The damage had already been done, and I’m sure he knew it.
This is the most interesting reaction I’ve seen to what I wrote.