For these and so many icons whose careers were cut short, fame, talent, beauty, and wealth were not effective armor against the onslaught of alcohol use disorder.
The disease of alcoholism does not discriminate. If you were born with a certain genetic makeup, if there is a history of alcoholism in your family, if you experience worsening consequences of your drinking and still can’t stop…you might be one of us. And alcohol use disorder is a progressive disease that only gets worse over time if left untreated.
Since alcoholism is also a self-diagnosed and self-treated disease, you have to be willing to do the work necessary to recover. Regardless of external circumstances — wealth, status, prestige, talent, access to the best resources — if you are not willing to help yourself, nobody can. As evidence of this reality, here are eight legendary celebrities who tragically died from alcohol use disorder or alcohol-related causes.
1) Richard Burton (1925-1984)
The recipient of Golden Globes and Tony Awards for Best Actor, Richard Burton was one of the biggest celebrities of the second half of the 20th century. He was also known for his love affair with Elizabeth Taylor. Together, they starred as Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the mega-bomb Cleopatra. At the time it was the most expensive film ever made, and its failure almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. After playing Hamlet in a remarkable Broadway production in 1964, critics raved that Richard Burton was “the natural successor to Olivier.” Afterward, the expectations were overwhelming. Is that what drove him to embrace the bottle?
According to biographer Robert Sellers, “At the height of his boozing in the mid-70s, he was knocking back three to four bottles of hard liquor a day.” Even when drinking, Burton had an impressive career. From Look Back In Anger and Becket to Equus and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, he gave stirring performances time and time again. Still, his fans and critics felt there could have been so much more if not for the drinking.
In his forties, Burton suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. His alcohol intake bloated his kidneys to abnormal proportions. During an operation to relieve back pain in the early 1980s, doctors discovered that his spine was covered with crystallized alcohol. Ignoring the pleas of his friends and family, Burton’s health issues continued to throttle him until his premature death at the age of 58 from a brain hemorrhage. Although alcoholism was not listed as a cause of death, the sharp downward trajectory of his health at such a young age is considered by doctors to be a direct result of his excessive drinking.
2) Truman Capote (1924-1984)
As the writer of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the true-crime novel In Cold Blood, Truman Capote proved that a writer could become an internationally-known celebrity. Published in 1966 by Random House, In Cold Blood broke new ground in non-fiction, and served as a beacon for the burgeoning and popular true crime genre. Speaking in 1974 at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Truman Capote described his extensive research for the book: “I spent four years on and off in that part of Western Kansas there during the research for that book and then the film. What was it like? It was very lonely. And difficult.” To console himself, Truman Capote drank and drank often, alone in Midwestern hotel bars.
Returning to New York after publication, Capote became a celebrity, partying day in and day out with the richest wives of New York City’s power elite. He bragged about the brilliance of his forthcoming novel, Answered Prayers. But Capote never published another significant work in his lifetime. Instead, he drank and popped prescription pills. When an individual chapter from the now legendary unfinished book was published in Esquire magazine in 1975, it proved to be social suicide. Truman Capote was ostracized from high society for revealing the dirty laundry of the rich.
Afterward, according to Vanity Fair, “Truman appeared in an inebriated state on … a local morning talk show in New York. Taking note of Truman’s incoherence during the interview … the host asked, ‘What’s going to happen unless you lick this problem of drugs and alcohol?’ Truman, through the fog of his own misery, replied, ‘The obvious answer is that eventually, I’ll kill myself.’” Fulfilling this prophecy, he spent his final years mostly alone in his New York high-rise apartment, drinking himself into sad oblivion. On August 25, 1984, Truman Capote died in Bel Air, Los Angeles, while visiting one of his last loyal friends. According to the Coroner’s Report, the cause of death was “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.”
3) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
Like Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald was a respected author and member of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. From The Great Gatsby to Tender Is The Night, Fitzgerald’s novels revealed the luxurious decadence of the Jazz Age. At the same time, he was one of the biggest drinkers during a notorious period of massive consumption. Later, during Prohibition, Fitzgerald’s extraordinarily heavy alcohol intake became the stuff of dark lore.
Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda pushed the limits, leading to extreme health problems that he denied were caused by alcohol. According to Nancy Milford, Zelda’s biographer, Fitzgerald’s claim of contracting tuberculosis was a beard to cover health problems caused by excessive drinking. After Zelda was institutionalized for schizophrenia, his drinking worsened. Fitzgerald’s deterioration was finally publicly revealed in “The Other Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald, 40, Engulfed in Despair,” an article published by the New York Post in 1936 that exposed his excesses and their devastating toll.
Between 1933 and 1937, Scott was hospitalized for alcoholism on eight separate occasions. During this period, he also had two heart attacks. However, he would not stop drinking and even boasted of reducing his gin consumption by consuming 37 beers a day. At 44 years old, F. Scott Fitzgerald dropped dead of another massive heart attack brought on by chronic alcoholism. It’s not surprising that he’s known for saying, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
4) Errol Flynn (1909-1959)
The greatest action hero of his time with starring roles in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventure of Robin Hood (1938), Errol Flynn was an Australian actor who achieved worldwide fame for his ability to play the dashingly handsome, romantic swashbuckler. In Hollywood, he had a reputation for womanizing, hard-drinking, and chain-smoking. A regular attendee of lavish parties at Hearst Castle, Errol Flynn once became so drunk that the newspaper baron had him escorted off the property. Flynn later shared a bachelor pad with actor David Niven in Malibu. The party pad became so notorious for extreme alcohol consumption that it was nicknamed “Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea.”
Flynn would take weekend trips on his private yacht, hosting parties fueled by cocaine, alcohol, and sexual misadventures. In Errol Flynn: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2004), biographer Thomas McNulty describes Errol Flynn and Fidel Castro meeting in late 1958 and drinking hard together. The encounter inspired Boyd Anderson’s novel Errol, Fidel, and the Cuban Rebel Girls (University of Queensland Press 2010). In The Last of Robin Hood (Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2013), an independent movie about Flynn’s final days, the aging actor’s sexual misadventures with a 17-year-old girl and the resulting scandal are highlighted. His alcoholism led to a spectacular failure in judgment that nearly sent him to prison.
In his thirties, Errol Flynn collapsed in an elevator and nearly died. A steady diet of alcohol had ravaged his heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Still, he continued drinking, injecting vodka into oranges when he was forbidden to drink on set. When he died of a heart attack at the age of 50, the medics who treated him told reporters they thought they were trying to save an eighty-year-old man.
5) Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Born in Philadelphia to a teenage mother, Billie Holiday chose her eponymous stage name as a tribute to movie star Billie Dove and her father, jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday. Holiday suffered significant trauma as a child and later turned to prostitution, which led to an arrest for solicitation. After being released from prison, she landed her first paid performing gig, and her career took off. Unfortunately, she couldn’t stop drinking and drugging.
She and Lester Young, the saxophone legend who bestowed upon her the nickname Lady Day, toured Europe with Count Basie’s Orchestra to great acclaim. Coming back to the United States, she recorded the most haunting song in her repertoire. Based on a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher in the Bronx sickened by a recent lynching of two black men, “Strange Fruit” is one of the most moving yet disturbing songs in American history. According to Frank Sinatra, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.”
Already a heavy drinker, Billie Holiday was introduced to heroin by her first husband, trombonist Jimmy Monroe. She was arrested for drug possession in 1947 and ended up serving ten months in federal prison. Afterward, the constant drinking made her voice rougher and more vulnerable. Her exhaustion with life was palpable. By 1959, Lady Day has been diagnosed with cirrhosis. In failing health, she was admitted to a New York hospital. Days later, Billie Holiday died at 44 of chronic alcoholism.
6) Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969)
With Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac is known for being the progenitor of “The Beat Generation” in the 1950s, an American literary movement that continues to exert a strong influence on each new generation. From On the Road (1957), his most iconic novel, and The Dharma Bums (1958) to Big Sur (1962) and Desolation Angels (1965), Jack Kerouac’s work is autobiographical with the names of the characters changed and the events intensified. All of these novels read like they were soaked in alcohol. Jack Kerouac drank as he typed, furiously writing first drafts that were rarely revised.
When he moved with his mother in 1958 to Northport, a Long Island harbor town in New York, Jack Kerouac’s life revolved around alcohol. “The locals remember him mainly as a broke barfly who padded about barefoot or in bedroom slippers,” Corey Kilgannon wrote in The New York Times. “Emotionally fragile and beset by alcoholism, not to mention a complicated relationship with his mother, Kerouac was declining physically, disillusioned by his celebrity and growing apart from his radical friends and artistic colleagues.” In his last years, Jack Kerouac became a recluse, and his closest friend was a cheap half-pint of Schenley’s whiskey.
On the morning of October 20, 1969, in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jack Kerouac put down the breakfast of champions, stumbled into the bathroom, and began vomiting blood an esophageal hemorrhage. After several transfusions in an attempt to make up for the loss of blood, doctors subsequently attempted surgery. However, a damaged liver prevented his blood from clotting. His cause of death was an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis.
7) Mickey Mantle (1931 – 1995)
A Hall of Fame professional baseball player for the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle is considered to be the greatest switch-hitter in the history of the game. He is also remembered as one of the heaviest drinkers in the game. Despite winning three Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards and leading his team to seven World Series victories, the Mick was beset by alcoholism. Shortly after he began his Major League career, his beloved father, Mutt Mantle, died of Hodgkin’s disease at age 39. Devastated by the loss, Mickey Mantle started to drink hard to escape the memories. As he later wrote, “After one drink, I was off and running… I’d often keep on drinking until I couldn’t drink anymore.”
Mickey Mantle was loved by his teammates. Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford describes him as “a superstar who never acted like one. He was a humble man who was kind and friendly to all his teammates, even the rawest rookie.” Sadly, Mickey Mantle played with injuries throughout his career that would sideline a modern player, including a torn ACL. In high school, he had suffered chronic damage to the bones and cartilage in his legs. Wracked by injuries, Mickey Mantle also drank to find relief. By the end of his career, he couldn’t even swing a bat without collapsing in pain.
When Mickey Mantle drank, he blacked out, often waking up in strange places with no idea of what had happened the night before. At the end of his career, he admitted he had a problem. After hitting rock bottom, diagnosed with hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and liver cancer, the Mick checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994. In a Sports Illustrated cover story later that year, he recounted the devastation that alcohol had caused in his life. After telling the same old stories about being drunk for years, Mickey Mantle realized they were not part of a comedy, but a tragedy. When he received a liver transplant, the doctors found the liver cancer had spread. A few months after receiving a new liver, Mickey Mantle, the golden boy of Major League Baseball, died on August 13, 1995, of this alcohol-related disease.
8) Hank Williams (1923 – 1953)
Considered one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the 20th century, Hank Williams is the archetype of the drunk country musician. A true hit-maker, Hank Williams recorded 35 singles (five charting after his death) that reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart. Impressively, 11 of those singles reached number one (three ranked after his death). He joined the Grand Old Opry in 1949 but his stay with the renowned Nashville country music broadcast was brief. In 1952, Williams was dismissed due to his unreliability and his alcohol abuse.
The holy grail in country music is authenticity, and Hank Williams helped define the word. He inspired generations of artists with hits such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I Saw the Light,” and the classic drinking song “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” As singer Bobby Bare recounts, “Everybody I know wanted to be like Hank Williams. And everyone I know bought into the drinking. You figure if Hank did it, it must be OK.” Beyond his music, the lasting influence of Hank Williams is what the late Waylon Jennings described as the “Hank Williams syndrome.” To be authentic like Hank, you had to drink like Hank.
While being driven across the country, Williams combined chloral hydrate, a sedative, with excessive drinking, and fell into a stupor. After being injected by a local doctor with a vitamin and morphine combination, the trip continued, but Hank’s conditioned did not improve. Realizing the singer was unresponsive, his driver pulled over and discovered the worst. On New Year’s Day, 1953, at the young age of 29, Hank Williams died of alcoholism and drug intoxication while traveling to a concert in Canton, Ohio.
If only fame, talent, beauty, and wealth were effective armor against the onslaught of alcohol use disorder, imagine how many legendary celebrities would have had longer and more productive careers. Can you picture in your mind’s eye the Academy-Award acceptance speech of Richard Burton? Or F. Scott Fitzgerald accepting the Nobel Prize for his later work? How about Mickey Mantle breaking the record for the most home runs in a season? Unfortunately, none of those accomplishments ever materialized because alcoholism knocked each of these legendary celebrities down for the count.
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