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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

Duncan was intrigued by beautiful, thwarted women: starlets who never quite reached icon status, like Tuesday Weld, and it can't be said that she wasn't, to some degree, interested in suicide. She asserted that Jean Seberg was driven to suicide by the FBI. She posted photographs by Francesca Woodman, the beautiful self-portraitist who jumped out a window at 22. Hunter Thompson's suicide note, she informed us, was titled "Football Season Is Over." She also posted poems by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sarah Hannah, a Boston poet who took her own life this May at age 40.

While she often commemorated the birthdays of her heroes (Thomas Pynchon, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Kurt Cobain), Duncan's own 40th birthday, Oct. 26, 2006, went unmentioned. However that day she linked to a report of an "extraordinary, enchanted masked ball" held in London (naturally, Kate Moss was there), which she proclaimed "almost as strange and wonderful as one of the Los Angeles Lunar Society's monthly full moon meetings." Some of her most fantastical writing could be found in her posts about this imaginary secret society of artists and filmmakers, of which she was "head librarian."

A love affair with L.A.

DUNCAN cultivated an aura of glamour and cool, and part of it seemed to stem from her association with Los Angeles, a city she adored. "Landlocked for decades and then free at last," she wrote about the first time she saw the ocean. Soon she was writing paeans to Abbot Kinney, Malibu Barbie, Beverly Hills and the Santa Ana winds. With her Art Luna-highlighted hair streaming behind her, she crossed town in an Alfa Romeo convertible, drinking Manhattans at the Chateau Marmont and blogging every Tuesday afternoon from a poolside cabana at the Viceroy Hotel -- or so she said. But when she and Blake broke their lease in February and moved to New York, she only casually referred to "relocating editorial offices," not mentioning their new home in the rectory of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery until April. What happened to the love affair with Los Angeles? For one thing, Blake had been hired as a designer at New York-based video giant Rockstar Games.

Duncan gave the impression that she was settling into and even relishing her East Village life. A June 14 post included photographs of her and Blake painting the town "rouge" and announced that they were accepting "all radical chic invitations." Then she alluded to the harassment they were supposedly victims of. ("Beneficiaries?" she mused cheekily.) Was her flip attitude a smoke screen, meant to disguise that Wit's world was crumbling? It didn't seem that way. The day before she died Duncan posted a link where you could find out what tarot card corresponded with your name; hers was the empress.

I didn't know her, and it's impossible to tell from reading the Wit of the Staircase to what extent Duncan and Blake might have alienated their friends or burned their bridges toward the end. Her writing was always opinionated and often arrogant. She routinely skewered the establishment (Artforum, she said, was a "fading critical powerhouse") and went after her perceived enemies, including the U.S. government, with claws out.

But none of this explains why she'd swallow a bottle of Tylenol PM (if I had to, I would have wagered on an asp to the breast).

The last post is a searching tribute to Duncan and Blake from their friend Glenn O'Brien. According to Raymond Doherty, a friend of Duncan's who is now maintaining the site, "the plan is to keep it up forever."

Yesterday I came across a post from Sept. 27, 2005, illustrated with a photograph of Duncan and Blake together on a couch in their Venice cottage. Duncan was kneeling, facing Blake and holding a stethoscope to his chest. She explained that they'd been chosen by an artist who was collecting sound recordings of "lovers' heartbeats" and that the photograph was taken as she recorded Blake's. Duncan described the experience as "amazing, like staring through a telescope at a vast and previously undiscovered world. The beats sounded so powerful, and yet so temporary," she wrote. "We are just another damn song."

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