I’ve been hard at work lately on Bixology, my book-in-progress about the romantic legend of Bix Beiderbecke. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 11, about Bix’s relationship with his friends, especially late in his life. In particular, I am interested in the role played by the friends of addicts. What can they possibly do to help? And is it fair to accuse Bix’s friends of not doing enough to save him—he drank himself to death at just 28—only to mythologize him, and by extension themselves, once he was gone? Hoagy Carmichael went so far as to give Bix (in the guise of Rick Martin) a happy ending in the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn.
Its closing lines come straight from Hoagy’s lips:
He learned that you can’t say everything through the end of a trumpet, and a man doesn’t destroy himself just because he can’t hit some high note that he dreamed up. Maybe that’s why Rick went on to be a success as a human being first—and an artist second. And what an artist.
Carmichael biographer Richard Sudhalter makes the case that Carmichael, not the screenwriter, wrote those words, but he also ignores the heartbreaking irony. Bix did indeed destroy himself, and while Hoagy certainly felt the loss, he responded by drowning himself in parties, alcohol, and all that anecdotage. Did he feel torn and guilty about Bix’s death? Did these feelings of guilt drive him to forget his friend for the legend? Sudhalter doesn’t speculate and neither, over the years, has anyone else.
Instead, we allow Bix to suffer, we encourage it even, because it serves our mythic needs. The literary critic Sven Birkerts wrote about this in 2003 [pdf] after the overdose death of writer Lucy Grealy, an outsized character who had battled disfiguring cancer all her life. “Reading Lucy’s work we realize how vigorously we cling to the myth of inwardness, the idea that personal suffering can become a source of strength,” Birkerts wrote in the Boston Globe. “When she died, we lost, along with the person, some of the consolation of that myth, though of course most of us will renew it elsewhere and in others. It is that essential.”
Birkerts then noted Grealy’s love of attention and wondered, cautiously, whether it had made her a co-conspirator in her growing legend. “It was all the more sad, then, in recent years, to catch glimpses of what was happening in her hidden life,” he wrote. “For the hopeless side of Lucy had found its way first to painkillers, then to heroin, and through heroin came the downward pull of oblivion. That her decline was as gradual as it was suggests to me that there were rallying surges of resolve, and renewals of faith in the possibility of transformation, if not outward then inward. Certainly there was the care and attention of her many friends.”
Notice how Lucy, like Bix, isn’t to blame for her addiction—the action belongs to “the hopeless side of Lucy,” an “it,” not a “she.” Notice, too, the way Birkerts imagines her pain in the feel-good terms of “resolve,” “renewal,” and “transformation.” Initially, he had seemed skeptical of fetishising other people’s suffering, but not any more.
And then there are the friends. When it first appeared, I e-mailed the Birkerts essay to a buddy of mine, a recovering alcoholic who had once met Grealy. His reply was quick and fierce:
I find it appalling that her friends aren’t angry, at her, at themselves. A “slow downward spiral into pain killers, then heroin.” Just how the fuck does that happen out of “friend’s” notice? (And I know that it does); what allows people (and those around them) the luxury of such a spiral . . . do her scars pay her fare on that particular train? Do the rest of us just have to suffer the long lines in stand-by and economy?
I’ll suggest that suicides tend to come when people view their lives as a sequence of diminished returns. They remove “the shock of possibility” from their lives, supplant real risk with drama, and in cahoots with “friends and family,” they begin to live their own fictions.
There is little evidence that Bix consciously lived his own myth, but stories have a way of looping back into our reality, controlling what they once only described or explained. His friends saw Bix as a boy genius destined to die, a hapless victim of fate, a kid without “his own strong mind.” Even Bix seemed to believe that (“Life has passed me by,” etc.), so that when he did finally die, his death was both the culmination of all the stories about him and the cause of still more. Bix himself, meanwhile, drifted farther and farther away. Who was he? Like Hoagy, we will always wonder. What seems clear is that Bix’s friends didn’t kill him. In the face of alcohol and addiction, friends are powerless. Lucy Grealy’s friend, the novelist Ann Patchett, discovered as much. “What she was suffering from was beyond me to fix,” she wrote in a 2003 essay for New York magazine, an essay that was later expanded into the memoir Truth & Beauty (2004), “so I did what I knew how to do for Lucy: I made her happy for a little while.”
It wasn’t enough.
While he was alive, Bix’s friends tried to save him. Or they didn’t try to save him. He died either way, and their gift to him, which was also a kind of apology, was Rick Martin.
He deserved better.
IMAGE: From a German magazine advertisement for Young Man with a Horn, featuring Kirk Douglas and Hoagy Carmichael