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The Greatest Deaths of the Greatest Writers

I once thought it would be a good idea to write a book about the deaths of some of history’s greatest writers. Long before the days of PCs and the internet, I’d stumbled across a few stories of the untimely demises of several authors and decided to keep notes. I’ll never write that book now, but here’s a potted summary of my favourites.

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Starting with the Classics, Aeschylus was one of the first Greek dramatists. Each year at Athens a competition was held between playwrights. Each play was limited to two or three actors (each wearing different masks for different characters, hence the happy/sad masks you see at theatres) and a chorus. Aeschylus won several of the competitions, but death is no respecter of achievement. Legend has it that an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head – probably mistaking it for a rock, which they often used to break open their victim’s shells. It killed the playwright instantly.

Dante drew heavily on Classical literature for his Divine Comedy. His death wasn’t very dramatic – he died of malaria in Ravenna in 1321 – but afterwards there was an argument between Ravenna and Florence (his birthplace) about where he should be buried. The dispute was resolved by Ravenna secretly walling up his body in a church to prevent the Florentines from stealing it for themselves. It wasn’t discovered again until over 500 years later, when the church was being restored. Parts of Dante’s body were stolen by locals for souvenirs.

Another famous lover of the Classics was Rupert Brooke, whose most famous poem was The Soldier (‘If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England’). And, indeed, he did die – from an infected mosquito bite en route to the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Appropriately, he was buried on the Greek island of Skyros in the Aegean.

Fellow WW1 officer, Wilfred Owen – was killed in action on 4 November 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice that ended hostilities. The telegram announcing his death was received by his mother on the very day peace broke out. ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle can patter out their hasty orisons.’

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Perhaps my favourite dramatic death was that of Japanese writer and nationalist, Yukio Mishima. He wanted the Emperor’s powers restored to their godlike pre-WW2 status, so formed his own militia and took over a Japanese Army base, holding its commanding officer hostage. When the Army refused to overthrow the government, Mishima went to the roof of one of the buildings and publicly committed hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowelment.

One of the most well known deaths of any writer was that of Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. He was found wandering around in a daze, unaware of who he was and dressed in somebody else’s clothes. He died four days later. Different theories abound over the cause of his death. Alcoholism is one. Another is a practice called cooping, where politicians would hire thugs to kidnap members of the public, drug them and have them vote for the said politician in as many polling stations as they could. Then they would dress them in different clothes and do it all over again!

Sticking with melodramatic Americans, Ernest Hemingway was one of my favourite writers when I was younger. He was an ambulance driver for the Italians in the Great War, where he was wounded in action and decorated. Later, he became a journalist in the Spanish Civil War (he loved Spain, and was an amateur bullfighter) and was present in the same capacity at the D-Day landings. He was a big game hunter, a fisherman, a heavy drinker and a womaniser. Like too many in his trade, he also suffered from deep depression, especially later in his life when he felt he had lost his ability to write. In 1961, he took a shot gun and gave himself both barrels.

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Sylvia Plath was another manically depressed writer, who made several attempts on her own life. In 1963, after blocking the gap under the door of her children’s bedroom with wet towels, she stuck her head in the oven and turned up the gas. She was found dead the next morning by her children’s nanny.

Less dramatic, but more unusual, was the demise of Tennessee Williams. While taking tranquilizers one night in 1983, he accidentally swallowed the cap from the bottle. Unfortunately, he was so drug-addled that his gagging reflex did not work and he choked to death.

Returning to British writers, Virginia Woolf killed herself in 1941 by loading her overcoat with large stones and walking into the Ouse. Her drowned body was found later by local children. I remember an interview with the actor, Dirk Bogarde, who recalled some of his childhood memories living in the same village as Woolf. If memory serves, he said that he had either seen her wade into the river, or he was among the kids who found her body. Reminds me of the film, Stand By Me.

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Playwright, spy and contemporary of Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, died a most dramatic and excellent death. In 1593, at the tender age of 29, he got into a pub fight over who should buy the next round. Friend and fellow writer, Ingram Frizer, pulled a knife and stuck it in Marlowe’s head. Death was instant.

Perhaps most macabre of all is the end of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822, and was cremated on shore the next day (cremations on wooden sailing ships can be pretty dangerous!) Bizarrely, his heart refused to burn and was plucked from the ashes by one of the mourners. He in turn gave it to Shelley’s wife, Mary (of Frankenstein fame) who kept its remains in her bureau for the rest of her life.

Lastly, one of those present at the cremation was Lord Byron. Returning to where we started – in Greece – Byron joined the Greek War of Independence. fighting against the Ottoman Empire. Like Rupert Brooke, he did not die in action but from a fever. Nevertheless, the Greeks still honour his memory to this day and consider him a national hero.

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