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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / Robert A Jones

The Room Where You Die Alone

July 03, 1996|Robert A Jones

She died and they didn't find her body for three days. Margaux--or was it Margot?--Hemingway arrived at her death via an old and familiar trail in Los Angeles. The trail that does not lead to second acts, only to a room, usually owned by someone else, where you die alone. The same trail followed by Monroe, by Joplin, by Belushi and a dozen others. Why do they all come here to do it?

Not that Hemingway "did it," in the literal sense. The police say the Santa Monica apartment where they found her body does not suggest suicide or overdose. And Hemingway suffered from the grand mal seizures of epilepsy, which have been known to kill.

But saying that epilepsy killed Hemingway is like saying insomnia killed Monroe. Margaux died because, like many of the others, she had been fooled by Hollywood. Fooled into thinking that the bright lights would last, that she would always be 20 years old, hearing the hungry voices of the little people shouting her name from beyond the ropes.

She denied her love of the bright lights, of course. They all do. One of the stranger exercises of journalism is reviewing the shards of a famous life that has just ended, and Hemingway's shards reveal more than most. For example, here is the 20-year-old Margaux in 1975, having just arrived in Los Angeles to star in her first movie, "Lipstick."

"Isn't this a great day?" she asks a reporter, bouncing around her new home that is described as "an Early California mansion in Santa Monica Canyon." She has agreed to talk to the reporter because, she says, "Let's face it. People see me as a fashion fantasy figure. I think it's time I set the record straight about myself."

She wants everyone to know that she's really a down-to-earth girl who just happened to have Ernest Hemingway as a grandfather. The press, she says, has over-glamorized her life, her $1 million modeling contract, and especially her recent marriage to an East Coast hamburger king. To counter this impression, she offers her own description of the marriage ceremony:

"Take our marriage in Paris. It was outrageous. We were standing there getting married and all of a sudden 200 press people were there. They were fighting and fumbling all over the place. We didn't tell them to come. They simply came."

In the next breath she lets it be known that she had picked out her reception dress from a picture in Time magazine that just happened to have her on the cover, and that the dress was flown across the Atlantic by the designer Halston, who put it on the plane in the care of his mother.

Her husband, described in the article as contemplating a new career as a movie producer, coos from behind her, "she's a natural. The success hasn't gotten to her. The money hasn't gotten to her."

Hemingway couldn't have known it, but that day in 1975 represented a kind of peak from which she would fall the next 20 years. "Lipstick" would fail, spectacularly so, and with it her film career. The hamburger king would spend her money and later be described by her as a "jerk." Another marriage would come and go. Within a short time, Hemingway no longer had to worry about 200 reporters showing up at her life events.

Still, you might ask, what's so bad about all that? Did not Margaux have her golden moment, which is one more than the rest of us get? True enough, except that celebrity often maintains a powerful grip over those who have had it and then lost it.

And so with Margaux. She could not merely walk away. Having flopped with an A-list movie, she tried B-list parts and then the C-list. She starred in one movie titled, "Killer Fish." Nothing worked. She went on the jet-set circuit, using the family name to hang onto the scene where she had once been a star.

She announced a new career as a singer and made what she called "a jazz-salsa" music video. It went nowhere. Then she began to paint. Ditto. Meanwhile, her little sister, Mariel, came along and succeeded in films. They stopped talking.

At some point, Margaux started to drink big-time. Her weight ballooned. In interviews, of which there were few, she would recite the results of her diets. One time she had lost 26 pounds. Another time, 40. She was always getting in shape to be ready for the comeback.

In 1988 she got on a plane for L.A., drank half a bottle of vodka, and then checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic. She came out sober and thinner and, she said, wiser. She changed the spelling of her name to "Margot" because "Margaux" referred, after all, to a French Bordeaux.

And she announced the revival of her career. Through it all, it should be said, Margaux maintained an amazing willingness to talk about her serial disasters and never, ever seemed to stopped believing that the next try at revival would succeed.

A few weeks ago, she returned once again to L.A., the city that had spurned her so many times. She took the studio apartment in Santa Monica and began working to reclaim the old magic. There was talk of a new perfume and a clothing line.

As always, what happened was something less. She signed on with the Celebrity Psychic Hotline that used her name to offer a "meaningful relationship with a Hemingway psychic."

And sometime last Saturday, or maybe Friday, she entered her apartment and died. She was 41 and utterly alone. We don't know what the coroner will list as the official cause of death. But the real reason seems clear enough.

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