As drag queen extraordinaire Alaska 5000 croons in her song “Legendary,” she was in a plane that almost went down and, although the people around her screamed in panic, she remained calm because: “[she’d] be a legend if [she] died today.” Lana del Rey has a similar sentiment in her song “Driving in Cars with Boys,” where she says: “I was born to live fast, die young/ Leave a beautiful corpse, live my life on the run.”
In 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin), asserts that the rule of celebrity deaths in threes is “a myth… like going bald with dignity.” Although he was referring specifically to hair loss, Donaghy’s claims about indignity apply more widely to the irrepressible progression of aging and irrelevance.
Mariah Carey, when she was young and lithe, used to dominate the charts. Today, Ariana Grande does, with similar songs and endless comparisons. Had Mariah died young, never would she have been replaced and never would she have had to react before the public. Since she’s still alive, we’re all eager to hear her comment on “the young Mariah’s” records going #1 while Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse sells barely a hundred thousand copies.
Back to the Jack Donaghy quote: no matter how the elusive chanteuse handles to obsolescence, be it with stately silence or childish hissy fits (it’s hissy fits), there is no dignity. To live it is axiomatically to detest it and suffer public embarrassment.
The following twelve celebrities, who died younger than nature would have had it, will carry on eternally as relevant, attractive, mythically effortless icons of American culture.
12 Amy Winehouse
Back in 2011, Amy Winehouse died of accidental alcohol poisoning when she went back to drinking after a period of asceticism. Her coroner, Shirley Radcliffe, said that when examined, it was found that Winehouse’s blood alcohol content was five times higher than the legal driving limit. At that level of drunkenness, her lungs gave out and she died of respiratory failure. Her live-in security guard, Andrew Morris, says that when she died, she was watching YouTube videos of herself, something he hadn’t seen her do in a little while. He left her at around 2:30 in the morning, then went back to check on her at 10 am. When by 3 in the afternoon she hadn’t moved, he realized that something bad had happened.
11 River Phoenix
River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix’s brother, died of an overdose in Johnny Depp’s LA nightclub The Viper Room in 1993. River first became famous playing the Rob Reiner directed movie Stand By Me, a coming of age movie about four boys in small-town Oregon who go looking for a dead body everyone’s talking about. River Phoenix rocketed to superstardom, renown for his androgynous good looks and roiling acting performances. He died from an overdose of cocaine and heroin in the early 90s, watching Johnny Depp’s band play. According to his friend Bob Forrest, River tapped him on the shoulder and said he thought he was OD’ing. A few minutes later, he collapsed into a seizure that killed him.
10 Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie was killed the following year as Tupac, in March of 1997. Two days after being booed at the Soul Train Awards, Biggie was shot and killed in L.A. No one was caught then, either. In 2002, an L.A. Times report said that Biggie was responsible for Tupac’s murder. The two had been in an East Coast/ West Coast rivalry. However, the very same Rolling Stone report that claimed Suge Knight might have been responsible for ‘Pac’s death said that he could also have also played a role in Biggie’s. Why is unclear, but apparently he ran his mouth to several associates.
9 James Dean
On September 30th, 1955, James Dean died in a car crash in Los Angeles, in his high-powered Porsche Spyder 550. For years, James Dean has been portrayed as a daredevil driver, whose reckless love of high speeds caused his death on the California freeway. But new evidence has show that actually, Dean was being relatively cautious. He was driving about 70 mph, 20 mph slower than myth would have it. Furthermore, rather than using the throttle to swerve around the car he crashed into, specialists now believe Dean braked hard trying to avoid contact. Rebel Without a Cause was released shortly after his death, confirming his legacy as America’s most committed bad boy.
8 John F. Kennedy
Who killed Kennedy? Still no one knows. The only facts that are absolutely certain are that on November 22nd, 1963, as his town car drove through Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Kennedy was shot from the window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. The only recording of the incident, named the Abraham Zapruder footage after its accidental auteur, shows Jackie Kennedy lunging for the back of the car, some say for safety and some say to collect the severed pieces of her late husband’s head. Authorities linked Lee Harvey Oswald to Kennedy’s murder, who desperately claimed he was a patsy, but he was never brought to trial because he was shot dead by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being transferred.
7 Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe was famous for her prescription drug use. She suffered from severe insomnia, and relied on sedatives to get her to sleep, and then amphetamines to rouse her from geologic somnolence in the morning. Most people think that, at 36, she died of an overdose. But a recent documentary has added a new thread to the narrative. Apparently, the doctor who prescribed her medications lied during the investigation of her death, saying that he had never prescribed chloral hydrates which, combined, with another drug he had prescribed, create a lethal reaction. By singing these prescriptions, Doctor Hyman Engelberg was “signing her death sentence,” allowing Marilyn Monroe to quietly slip into permanent slumber.
6 Anna Nicole Smith
Anna Nicole Smith died in February of 2007, at 39, from an overdose on prescription drugs. Because of this, and because of her effervescent beauty, she has often been compared to Marilyn. She, like the original Atomic Blonde, was a symbol of her times. Many people believe that she committed suicide to escape the pain of her twenty-year-old son’s death from drug overdose. Only five months separated their deaths. Anna Nicole’s death is doubly iconic because not only did her son’s precede hers, but she also left behind an infant daughter (born three days before the death of her son) who will now be raised without a mother.
5 Tupac Shakur
With over 75 million albums sold, Tupac Shakur is not only one of the most successful rappers of all time, he’s one of the most successful musicians of all time, as well. On September 13th, 1996, he was shot five times, in the lobby after a Mike Tyson fight in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He died a week later in the hospital from internal bleeding after a medically induced coma. Still today, no one knows who killed the legendary rapper. However, in 2005 Rolling Stone reported that Suge Knight, CEO of Death Row Records (Tupac’s label), orchestrated the killing because Tupac was going to quit and Knight wanted to continue profiting from his extraordinary star appeal.
4 Heath Ledger
Many people believe that playing the Joker in The Dark Knight unlocked Heath Ledger’s depression and pushed him towards the drugs that eventually killed him. On January 22nd, 2008, Heath Ledger died of a combination of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine, or painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and sleeping pills. A new documentary, Too Young to Die, shows that Heath Ledger kept a creepy diary while he prepared for his role, sitting locked in a hotel room for a month experimenting with different voices and laughs. The most chilling thing about the diary, though, is that at the end of it, Heath wrote the words: “bye, bye” on the last page, almost as though he were alluding to his looming death.
On August 21st, 2001, the beautiful and precocious pop star Aaliyah died in a plane crash over the Bahamas. She was on her way to Miami, Florida. How did the plane go down? Some think that it’s the result of engine failure. Reports say that the pilot, in an argument with his crew, said the plane was too heavy to maintain flight, but relented from his position and agreed to take off. The plane crashed almost immediately after takeoff from the Bahamas, where the singer had been filming a music video, killing her immediately. Her album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number was released when she was fifteen and went gold. She had a promising acting career, promising to become the next Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston.
2 Edie Sedgwick
Princess of Andy Warhol’s multimedia factory (where the counterculture of the 1960s was produced), the radiant Edie Sedgwick died in 1971 from an overdose of barbiturates. The Independent says about her famous friendship with Warhol: “The neglected daughter craved the obsessive attention of a famous man who demanded nothing from her in return.” Her mental state, like that of her many ancestors, was fragile. She was addicted to drugs, her favorite being a speedball: a shot of amphetamines in one arm and a shot of heroin in the other. She broke herself buying drugs, finally prostituting herself to a biker gang to afford her next fix. She was finally found dead of an overdose by her husband, Michael Post. She was 28.
1 Chris Farley
SNL alum Chris Farley died on December 18th, 1998 from an overdose of drugs and alcohol. A friend of his has said that his anxiety and intense self-loathing were his “death sentence.” Farley said himself that he never sure whether his fans were laughing at his jokes or at him, period. Even though he commanded $6 million per picture, he believed that people only went to see his “Fat Guy Falls Down” shtick. Chris Farley was known for his appetite for drugs, booze, and food. At the time of his death, he was almost three hundred pounds, despite being only 33 years old and barely 5’8”.