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Witness to the wit of an arch and fiery spirit

On her blog, the late Theresa Duncan shared what caught her fancy. A fan follows the map.

August 12, 2007|Steffie Nelson | Special to The Times

THERESA DUNCAN worked hard to get out of Lapeer, Mich., where she was born in 1966, and where, last month, she was buried. On her blog, the Wit of the Staircase, the writer and filmmaker compared Lapeer to the small Texas town in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show." "You would think it was 1951," she wrote, adding that her birthplace was "similarly subject to incredible boredom punctured by baroque social intrigue."

Another post recalled a long ago summer day and Duncan's turn down the literary path: "At the quarry in July my cousins told me the water was 'bottomless,' and so I hugged the shore and learned to swim in the Lapeer library instead, suspecting already exactly what the limitless meant. . . . Ever after I knew all the haunted shades of meaning that were captive in other people's words. And for that they called me mad."

It's a label that has followed her to the grave. Many newspapers have reported on the double suicide of Duncan and her artist boyfriend, Jeremy Blake, in New York, trying to understand the deaths of this "golden couple" (who lived in Venice until February) with accounts of paranoia, mental instability, codependency and professional disappointments. The reports noted Duncan's success as a creator of CD-ROM games for girls as well as the setbacks she experienced more recently with several feature film projects.

Few, however, gave more than a passing mention to her blog, which she launched in July 2005 and typically posted to three or four times a day.

Lavishly illustrated with fine art, fashion photography, film stills, news and paparazzi photos, book and album covers, and recurring images of Kate Moss, her preferred celebrity obsession, Wit, as she called it and herself interchangeably, was a cultural free-for-all. In this forum, which she could credibly assert was engendering a new type of writing, Duncan shared the things that caught her fancy, sometimes crafting lengthy, heavily researched ruminations on subjects mundane and arcane, sometimes excerpting articles or posting poems or even listing a particularly good run on her iPod. Always, her poetic sensibility, arch glamour and fiery spirit came through. Hers was a unique female voice, and this is why her death is such an acute loss to her readers, myself included.

Duncan portrayed herself as a Freudian and a fashionista, an intellectual and a stoner, a political radical with a perfume fetish, and a groupie in a 12-year monogamous relationship. Because of the pliancy of her mind, these seeming contradictions could coexist. She was hungry for knowledge, for answers, for beauty, and she created an online space that was essentially a map of her discovery process -- a "web log" in the truest sense. Wit dug deep, and through her I first learned about the German groupie and left-wing sex symbol Uschi Obermeier, the heiress, social activist and literary muse Nancy Cunard and the L.A. artist and occultist Cameron. Maybe it was just her knack for self-mythologizing, but Duncan seemed connected to the lineage of freethinking women she wrote about.

In her posts about Detroit -- to which she was as devoted as she was ambivalent about Lapeer -- you can trace the roots of her radical sensibility. Duncan lived in Detroit -- birthplace of the automobile and the Stooges and the MC5 -- in the late '80s, and going back for a recent visit she even found magic there in bitterest winter, standing with a friend on the roof of an abandoned building downtown. "He said, 'I can breathe your name, every letter shaped perfectly.'. . . They all came out just formless clouds, but he spelled my name out over the city of Detroit, and that's an incantation all its own."

Perfume was another of Duncan's passions. Six days before she died, she wrote about a scent called Aria di Capri, comparing it to "a beautiful woman's laugh, startling, sharp and silver like a 747 slicing suddenly above the cloud cover and rising into the sun." Scent could conjure her parents' moonlit frontyard; Talitha Getty's Marrakech; clothes by Ossie Clark and music by Joni Mitchell; or "the house you never go in by the beach with the crooked Christmas lights and dirty pink and blue and yellow lawn statues where the old hippie lady smiles sometimes from the porch, and sometimes curses and raves and moves in circles around the yard."

Asked in an interview with LAist to imagine a perfume version of Los Angeles, she described a blend of "celluloid and sand, coyote fur and car exhaust, contrail cloud and chlorine, bitter orange and stage blood and one bushel of ghostly, shivery night-blooming jasmine flowers like blown kisses from the phantoms of the ten thousand screen beauties who still haunt our hills every full moon because they think it's a stage light."

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