Fame Kills

09/18/2005 11:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Years ago my wife asked a “supermodel” friend how she stayed so thin: “P86 (protein powder) and cocaine.” Fashions come and go, but some things never change. In a world where time is a disease and age is a disfigurement, celebrities from Kate Moss to Hunter S. Thompson still fall victim to the culture of fame. “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse” sounds good - until someone you love is the corpse.

Kate is fighting bad press after being secretly filmed “doing five lines of cocaine in 40 minutes at a late-night music recording session, preparing them with a credit card and snorting the drug through a five-pound note.” Her boyfriend Pete Doherty was fired from the Libertines rock band a while back for the familiar litany of drugs, unreliability, and violence. He’s the latest poster child for the self-destructive hipness that stretches in an unbroken line from Byron to Kerouac, from Hank Williams to Brian Jones.

Doherty gives his audience the vicarious thrill that is a celebrity addict’s job. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” said William Blake. Slaves to the Romantic ideal of self-destruction, these dark stars become part public sacrifice and part sideshow act. As they linger in the role – if they live – their talents often fade. The ecstatic and liberating highs turn frantic and deadly in the prison of their identity. It’s fun, until it’s not. When Doherty acknowledges his indebtedness to Baudelaire, it’s not just for the poetry.

Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide marked him as another casualty of the fame that annihilates. His family, friends, and fans presented that shotgun blast to the head as a final act of rebellion, but a newly-uncovered note reveals an aging man trapped in an image that bordered on self-impersonation. Behind the note is the silhouette of a gifted artist who couldn’t seek help for his suffering and still meet the world’s expectations. Now I cringe when I see Doonesbury’s “Dr. Duke” with his cocktail glass: it’s the cartoon that destroyed the man.

“I told him not to join that stupid club,” cried Kurt Cobain’s mother when her son took his place among the famous and dead. The news these days is sad enough, so here’s my plea. To the brilliant, beautiful, and tortured: Save yourselves. In a world scarred by war and natural disaster, we don’t need any more beautiful corpses.