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Does Fame Kill?


Reading about the sad and sudden death of the actress Natasha Richardson, I’ve come to wonder if perhaps, in some small part, she died not in spite of her fame but rather because of it.
Most people seem to think that fame is generally a good and valuable thing. I don’t think that’s so true. Money, power, even glamor — O.K., but fame comes with hidden costs. There is loss of privacy, of course, and a variety of vulnerabilities, especially if you have children, as Richardson did. I have written about a number of famous people over the years and every single one of them had a serious stalker at some point. (Here is one hideous example.) To most of us, privacy may seem like an important but abstract notion; to the famous, it is a high-stakes game. President Obama, whose fame is obviously attached to even higher stakes, on The Tonight Show yesterday mentioned his security detail:

Michelle jokes about how our motorcade — you know, we’ve got the ambulance and then the caboose and then the dog sled. The submarine. There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on.

Even for a famous person who isn’t president, the vulnerabilities of fame naturally create anxiety. It becomes more necessary, or at least more appealing, to build a cocoon. When you are famous, your every move is of interest to someone — and, consequently, of value to someone else. While anti-paparazzi sentiment seems to have diminished since Princess Diana died — an obviously extreme case of the price of fame — I would posit that, among the famous, that sentiment is as strong as ever.
There is a vicious cycle at play. When famous people complain about the price of fame, non-famous people complain about famous people’s complaints. Shouldn’t they be happy that so many people care about them? I would! Besides, they bring it on themselves by courting attention …
To this last point: sometimes yes, sometimes no. There is a big difference between a professional celebrity and an actor, or a pair of actors like Richardson and her husband, Liam Neeson, who are in a business where fame is a byproduct of success. Do some movie stars love being famous? Sure. Do some of the smartest ones hate it? Yes.
According to this Times article about Richardson, she died of an epidural hematoma. “If surgery is performed quickly,” wrote Denise Grady and Anahad O’Connor, “it may be possible to save the patient’s life.”
This article and others report that Richardson had a relatively minor fall on a beginner’s ski slope outside of Montreal and seemed to be fine but left the slope immediately. The ski resort reportedly advised her to see a doctor; an ambulance was called but was sent away “because treatment was not needed.” Later, however, another ambulance was called and took Richardson to a small nearby hospital, which seems to have had no trauma center. She was eventually moved to a larger hospital in Montreal and then flown to a New York hospital, where she died. [Addendum: a more recent update has further details.]
It is a horrible story and one can’t help but feel great sorrow for her family. To die so suddenly from a minor mishap, to leave behind a husband and two children … well, it is heartbreaking.
The question that came to my mind was whether Richardson and Neeson’s fame may have, in some way small or large, contributed to her death. I realize this may sound ghoulish; I do not mean to offend. But if I were part of a famous family and was advised to go to the hospital after a minor mishap, the invasion of privacy might have appeared to outweigh the benefit of what was a seemingly precautionary measure. Do I really want to deal with the possibility of tabloid photos, career rumors, the sheer noise of it all? There’s another angle as well: it may be that, because of the patient’s fame, medical precautions were delivered but, if met with resistance, not followed through as aggressively as they could have been.
I am probably wrong about the particulars of my speculation. At least I hope I am. But that doesn’t change the idea: fame carries a price that shouldn’t be so readily dismissed. Richardson’s death is sad; it would be sadder yet, however, if her fame did play a role.