As a boy I had heard the story of the short, strange life of a novelist from my part of the country who wrote one book, and then he died. When I was old enough I read it, and it was a long and wonderful, beautifully-written book. And I remember the movie they made from it, and the wistful music and the tall golden tree at the end when everything turned out well. I have the feeling now that a little time should be taken to remember him.
His goal since his Midwest American childhood was to write a great successful novel. Why shouldn’t he? If ever there was “a charmed life” it belonged to Ross Lockridge, Jr. He was immensely talented, handsome, confident, reliable, competitive, rarely drank and never smoked, married to his pretty hometown sweetheart, father of four, brilliant, a success at everything he ever attempted– sports, academics, girls—highest GPA in Indiana University history—for six years a relentless worker on the novel that consumed and obsessed and tormented him and on which he staked his claim to greatness—Raintree County.
He believed in his critically-admired and widely-praised book and single-mindedly devoted himself to writing it and to its promotion. He worked with no other purpose, compelled by a force that made everything but the book unimportant, nothing else mattering—twenty or thirty pages a day flying from his typewriter–a rich man now after years of financial worries, scrounging, budgeting, and sacrificing. Yet shortly after Raintree had catapulted him into fame and money, and was the biggest success in the literary world, seeing his book become not just a hit, but the number one best seller in the United States, he committed suicide.
He left the new house his royalties had bought him, telling his wife he was going to mail the letters he was holding in his hand and might stop over at his father’s house to listen to a basketball game on the radio. He seemed to be in a good mood and had seemed cheerful all day. He was now mentally ill and had to admit that. He had sought treatment though his family didn’t want to admit he was sick. Recently, his wife had found him opening and closing the kitchen cabinets and asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m looking for a way out.” His many treatments of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy—“shock treatment”) had failed.
He went into the garage, locked the doors behind him, started the engine of his new car and ran a vacuum cleaner hose from the tail pipe into the car’s ventilation system. He lay down in the back seat and was found by his family hours later. He was thirty-three.
There is never a single theme, event, or explanation that comes out of a man or woman’s life. But no one who knows anything about how easy it is to be trapped in a pursuit of achievement that’s gotten out of control, especially in the arts, can fail to hear the echoes of similar voices equally successful and equally in despair—Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway’s suicide and one of the twentieth century’s most influential poets Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and Pulitzer Prize winning beautiful, sexy poet, doomed Anne Sexton’s.
Success not only did not bring Lockridge happiness, it brought pain and depression. Everything in his life he’d reflected in his book and now the book was done and he had nothing creative left. He tried, but he couldn’t write anymore. He felt he had made too many compromises to his publisher and the movie studio, had given in too often when he shouldn’t have, and had sold his soul and was paying for it.
Anyone who’s been touched by fame’s and wealth’s pursuit recognizes the symptoms of Lockridge’s ambition gone awry: sadness, the sense of being cheated and exploited, resentments, anger, hostility, and then the misery of miseries: his inability to create. The fulfillment that gives a healthy artist’s life, its main meaning was no more. All his joy was gone. Success was too difficult for Ross to bear.
© 2016 David J. Rogers
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17 responses to “Ross Lockridge: Artistic Success Became Tragedy”
What a sad story. I thought immediately of Robin Williams, whom I admired so much. I guess the lesson is…be careful what you wish for.
Yes, Lise, it is a sad story. But I wanted to tell it. You wish you could go back in time and help him in some way. A sad, terrible ending for such a talented man, and you’re right–it does bring to mind Robin Williams.
Once again wonderfully written, although I feel a sense of melancholy as the words are read and re-read.
I’m trying to define the take home message you have left for us, but I’m struggling.
Perhaps that’s it. The struggle. It’s part of the human condition, yet we often we can’t see outside of ourselves to remember that struggling, on so many levels, is universal. In my work with people with chronic pain, now for so many years, the ripple effect of the struggle is so evident, consistently leading to isolation, depression, fear, loss of function and the very essence of the life that was lived, the things you wrote about so beautifully in Art and Memory.
In my work, we concentrate on not letting the pain define us. When we look at one another, we see just a glimpse of what is really alive in each other. We are much more than what we see. There is so much more to discover.
Sometimes we lose people to the struggle. One dear man of recent memory was happy and smiling as he left for his final walk to the Golden Gate Bridge.
There is much data to suggest that ECT has been helpful for chronic pain patients, although it’s not known whether it’s by virtue of treating the depression or the biochemistry of the nervous system. (The newest theory of persistent pain is that it is maintained, at least partially, by overstimulation and excitation of the nervous system over the continuum .)
What is recognized is the loss of short term memory after ECT, which brings me back to your work on Art and Memory and how integral memory is in the creation in art.
All of those things being said, I’m wondering what led you to think of Mr. Lockridge on this day? Were you thinking about him as I think about Prince Rogers Nelson? Were you lamenting the loss of his artistic contributions?
I want to make sure I understand the lesson you are wanting us to learn.
I hope to hear more.
Kathy, I’m so happy to hear you’re doing such valuable and important work. My son, Evan, is a therapist who works with trauma victims.
My wife asked me why I was writing this post about Ross Lockridge. It wasn’t like my others. What was my motivation? I wrote it because his story moved me. If there is a message here, it’s in my wanting to caution people in mad pursuit of “success”—writers especially—to be aware of what happened to this so talented writer when he lost control of himself.
It happened to me when I had great success. Suddenly everything was coming my way. Successes were easy, a new opportunity here, a new one there. But I began to lose myself and change for the worse. Fortunately, the advice and caring of people who loved me brought me back to my senses. They said, “You’re changing.” And when I feel it happening now, I say, “Be careful, David,” just as I want to say to writers, “Be careful. Stay as you are. Don’t let fame change you. Don’t lose your bearings. Success—well, it’s only success. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Be on your toes.” The act of creating is all that really matters.
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There are days the important work you spoke of feels so heavy and burdensome that I think it is not possible to do stay with it another day. Those days are increasing in number.
It’s the people who are unable to build themselves back up that bring on the sense of failure and what went wrong.
I have often thought I don’t want to do this anymore. Maybe if I could just write and not be directly responsible for people’s lives, maybe then the burden would be less.
There’s the faulty reasoning. We are always responsible for each other. A poster I saw reminds that “We’re here to walk each other home.” So we are.
Thanks for the reminder that there is pain in art, just as it is present in so many aspects of life. We have gifts and choices. It’s ultimately up to us.
I’m left wondering, though, that perhaps the illness took him away, independent of his art. Perhaps his genius was directly related to his illness. I guess we’ll never know.
I suspect it’s never just one thing.
Kathy, I feel badly for you and your heavy and burdened days. I can imagine how hard it is to work with people with such serious problems who are having such difficulty solving them. I’m sure burnout is quite common in your line of work. My son, Evan, the therapist who works with trauma victims, is a great advocate of self-care for therapists, social workers, etc. He runs and attends various groups aimed at that. At one point in my life I worked with disadvantaged gang-oriented youth from the toughest parts of Chicago and would regret that even the smallest successes were difficult for them, hard as they tried. But some did succeed and their lives were changed.
I too think Lockridge’s depression was awful for him. He didn’t have a history of it, but when it hit him, it was devastating. You probably know that the incidence of mental l illness—particularly mood disorders—is many times higher among writers than it is for the general public. And disorders like that may end in suicide.
While I have you Kathy, you mentioned after reading something of mine that you wanted your creative writing to be more vivid. Good writers are able to evoke a place and time—to bring them to life—to fully “realize” them. Steep yourself in the images of the place and time. Then slowly examine them as if examining a photograph, noticing the smallest detail (like lightning bugs). Small details make a strong impression on readers. Then write it out, using what poets shoot for –the “just right” word. You have a knack for language.
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Good morning David….yes, a very sad story because I am quite sure that he had much more to say and give. However, it would seem that after achieving the illusive status of ‘being successful’ – that special drive and desire which allows creatives to keep moving forward despite all manner of setbacks, was removed. Maybe for him it felt like a gaping hole within…..and maybe it was a case of his being too young. For example, had he been older when achieving his success, over the preceding years he might have gained the necessary tools to weather the often intense highs and lows which seem to accompany the life of a creative.
This story has given me much food for thought….thank you so much. I hope you enjoy a beautiful autumn weekend in Chicago…janet:)
Janet, Thanks for wishing me a beautiful autumn weekend. I’m starting it by getting a haircut in a few hours. I hope your weekend is happy too. Are your autumns there in the UK beautiful?
Yes, I’m sure Lockridge had much more to say and that his competitiveness would have driven him to higher and higher achievements—had he kept his life in balance. I don’t know about you Janet, but in my creative life I’ve lost my balance more than once and had to be rescued by the good advice and support of people who loved me.
I know that the death of one person should be no more regrettable than the death of someone else. But there is just something so sad and wrenching about the premature death of a supremely talented person. When my friend, composer Marvin Hamlisch—three academy awards, Broadway shows, Tony awards, Pulitzer Prize, record of the year—died of natural causes, I thought, “Oh, Marvin why did you have to die? There was so much music left in you.” I often wonder if he would have written that symphony just as I wonder if Ross Lockridge would have ever finished his masterpiece that he was planning when he died.
Good morning David…We are currently experiencing superb autumn weather….the trees are still green, but beginning to turn. We do enjoy a beautiful autumn, however, I don’t think there is anything quite like the New England Fall.
Oh yes, I have indeed lost my balance a few times during my career – and like you have been rescued by dear friends and supporters. As I get older, I find life in general to be easier…..(we creatives are possibly the only group that feels this way:) I don’t feel the same pressures and anxieties that I felt when younger, although having said that, I know I must pace myself…this is very important. Discernment is key.
On the subject of death, I agree….there is something tragic about a very talented person dying, especially at a young age. I am sensing the importance to prioritise in my own creative life….as time become more limited. I see time as the great illusion. Even if I were to live to 100 – (thirty more years) it is the blink of an eye….in the big scheme of things, and so I do try each and every day to make the most of the time within it.
A new commercial venture has stated with my name on it. If you go to http://www.zazzle.com and put my name into the search engine…you will see a line of products with hummingbird images. I have wanted to do this for years…hoping that royalties from sales would top up pensions etc….Like everything, timing is key. Three years ago a woman in Dallas Texas began selling prints of my hummers through her company, HummingbirdHQ.com – it is through her that this is now happening. Fingers crossed.
My hope of course is that this augments my income giving me freedom to paint and write as I please. All part of the journey. Enjoy a lovely weekend…Janet:)
Janet, As I pile up the years I too feel less pressure coming from the outside, but inside I’m always putting pressure on myself. Mainly, “Am I working hard enough? Am I getting enough work done?” But, like you, I’m better able to pace myself now. When I wrote Fighting to Win and Waging Business Warfare I worked eighteen hours a day for two years—in a frenzy—and that took a toll. But now four or so hours are enough.
Your work is just so beautiful I’m happy you’re finding new ways to get it out to the public through the new venture. I’m so impressed, but always am with what you’re doing—racing about, creating this and that. It would be wonderful if you indeed could paint and write as you please. I’m able to write that way now that I’ve “retired.” Of course I’m not a good painter though I read your book and have gotten better. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a mammoth success for you.
Keeping the internal and external in balance – so important for those who create. I loved reading this David.
Josephine, I’m so happy to hear from you. I was just talking about you—“I wonder what Josephine is up to”– and here you are. Your judgment and taste mean quite a bit to me, so I’m especially happy you “loved” this post. Yes, it’s so, so, so easy for writers, painters, actors—all of us– to become imbalanced isn’t it? I teeter on toppling over with milder forms of imbalance from time to time and my wife and children have to grab hold and set me upright again. I really like your new photograph.
When I reading your posts the ideas come to my mind
like a movie,even I feel the emotions.And this post is
not the excepcion.
Suicide is a sad situation.
Long time ago I read the book “Man’s search for Meaning”
Is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl,telling us his
experiences at an Auschwitz concentration camp
during world war II, and discribing his theory
The book intends to answer the question
How was everyday life in a concentration
camp reflected in the mind of the average prisioner.
Is a great book I have understood the meaning of life.
Thanks for your post David.
Have a nice weekend.
Marilucas, How have you been, my friend? Are you still developing your writing talent? It sounds good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it is that it’s best when it is full of visual images. So I’m pleased you find that in my writing. I’m familiar with Frankl’s book, quite a famous, significant book.
I think you’re onto something—Ross Lockridge couldn’t fasten on to anything meaningful there at the end of his life that would save him.
David, thank you for your encouragement.
Please don’t feel badly for me. It’s all just part of the job. Emotional fatigue seems to come easily most days. People with chronic disease might get better, but never completely well. I guess I’d be worried if I didn’t internalize their grief, at least partially. It would be like I “didn’t get it.” We work on changing perspectives, on playing the cards that were dealt to us while moving toward a place of peace and acceptance. While their successes are gratifying, I often wish I could be a florist or a musician…something that brings pure joy to people. But I’m not, and this seems to be what I do best.
I’m so glad to know your son is taking good care of himself. My habit was always to go home and care for the children. Now I just go home.
I did not know the statistics on mood disorders and writers. It seems predictable, though, that people who “live in their heads” would be much more sensitive and reactive to events in their lives. I understand how life can be so wonderful yet totally unlivable both at the same time.
This afternoon, I’ve been trying, as you suggested, to bring detail to time and place. I’ve recalled some events from my childhood in Nebraska. The details are coming as I concentrate. They are becoming clearer. What awesome memories.
Have a wonderful Sunday… the weeks are passing too quickly.
Be well, David.
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Oh gosh, what a tragic story. That poor man and his family. What a failure of culture and upbringing that would leave that man without skills to deal with his success and what comes with it, but also one that left him spiritually and creatively broken and bereft. great story David, thanks for sharing.
You’re right, Sara, brilliant as Ross Lockridge was and loved as he was, at the end of his life he was completely without the personal resources to protect himself from his demons. When I was thinking of writing this post, I was asked why I would want to. Would anyone want to read a post about a heart-breaking suicide? Blog posts are supposed to deal with lighter subjects.
But for many years I’ve felt such sorrow for Lockridge that I felt I owed it to him to tell his story, even to those who, like you, are far across the world from his and my American Midwest where his mythical Raintree County was situated.
I think that probably somewhere in my motivations for writing the post was the suicide of my best friend Nick when he was 22 and I was 21.