Why celebri­ties choose a pri­vate death

The Daily Herald - - SHORT TAKES - By Caitlin Gib­son

Gene Wilder didn’t want any­one to know he had Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

It was only af­ter he died Tues­day at 83 from com­pli­ca­tions of the ill­ness that his fam­ily re­vealed the beloved Hol­ly­wood en­ter­tainer’s se­cret. “The de­ci­sion to wait un­til this time to dis­close his con­di­tion wasn’t van­ity, but more so that the count­less young chil­dren that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then ex­posed to an adult ref­er­enc­ing ill­ness or trou­ble,” Wilder’s fam­ily said.

“He sim­ply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

It was the sort of self­less sen­ti­ment that seemed to be­fit Wilder, a lov­able and hi­lar­i­ously neu­rotic icon of so many child­hoods. It also re­vealed the del­i­cate cal­cu­lus that fa­mous peo­ple have to make when con­fronted with a ter­mi­nal ill­ness: How much do they want the world to know?

Wilder wasn’t the only pub­lic fig­ure who chose to keep his di­ag­no­sis pri­vate. Fans of David Bowie were stunned when the iconic mu­si­cian died of liver can­cer in Jan­uary; he had told only his clos­est fam­ily and friends that he was sick. Writer and di­rec­tor Nora Ephron, who died of leukemia in 2012, didn’t even alert some of the friends she’d cho­sen to speak at her me­mo­rial ser­vice. The pub­lic had no idea that co­me­dian Robin Wil­liams had suf­fered from Lewy Body de­men­tia un­til months af­ter his suicide

in 2014.

For de­voted fans who feel a pow­er­ful bond with a cher­ished idol, such sud­den news can leave them reel­ing.

“For all of us who love Gene Wilder and other fa­mous peo­ple who died, it’s a shock,” says Maureen Kee­ley, a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions stud­ies at Texas State Univer­sity and the co-au­thor of “Fi­nal Con­ver­sa­tions: Help­ing the Liv­ing and the Dy­ing Talk to Each Other.”

Faced with their mor­tal­ity, she says, one of the most im­por­tant choices a per­son can make is whom to share the ex­pe­ri­ence with, and how to share it.

“And that’s when you have the most valu­able, mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions with those you love,” she says. “And that’s who you want to say good­bye to, that’s who you want to share those fi­nal days with — those who truly know you at your core.”

Fans, no mat­ter how

de­voted, may not make the list — and that’s ap­pro­pri­ate.

“The rea­son we’re all in shock is be­cause we’re not in­vited into that very pri­vate world,” Kee­ley says. “And I un­der­stand us want­ing to be, but we should not be.”

This may sound ob­vi­ous on the one hand — of course we don’t have a per­sonal con­nec­tion to a celebrity, no mat­ter how their work may have touched us — but it can still feel jar­ring to fans who are ac­cus­tomed to fol­low­ing ev­ery de­tail of a fa­vorite celebrity’s life: whom they’re dat­ing, what they’re wearing, how they raise their kids. Many pop cul­ture fig­ures are in­creas­ingly open about deeply per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing se­ri­ous ill­nesses: Se­lena Gomez has talked about what it’s like to un­dergo chemo­ther­apy for lu­pus. When Patrick Swayze was dy­ing of pan­cre­atic can­cer, he took the op­por­tu­nity to spread aware­ness of the dis­ease.

But other high-pro­file fig­ures sim­ply want no part of that.

Ephron’s son, Ja­cob Bern­stein, wrote in the New York Times that his mother had con­sid­ered telling friends and col­leagues about her leukemia but feared the ef­fect that it might have on her ca­reer. She wanted to keep work­ing, he wrote.

It went deeper than that, too: “What my mother didn’t want was to have her ill­ness de­fine her, turn­ing ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion into a se­ries of ‘how are you?’s,” he wrote.

When Ephron died, even some of her close friends were shocked. Os­car-win­ning ac­tress Meryl Streep shared her dis­be­lief in a eu­logy at Ephron’s me­mo­rial ser­vice.

“She pulled a fast one on all of us,” she said. “It’s re­ally stupid to be mad at some­body who died but some­how I have man­aged it.”

When Bowie died, some of his long­time friends were sim­i­larly stunned. Pro­ducer Brian Eno said that Bowie’s death was a “com­plete sur­prise”; but in ret­ro­spect, he said, there were sub­tle clues in the fi­nal email he re­ceived from Bowie.

“It was as funny as al­ways, and as sur­real, loop­ing through word games and al­lu­sions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sen­tence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot.’ And it was signed ‘Dawn,’” Eno said. “I re­alise now he was say­ing good­bye.”

JES­SICA HILL / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Ac­tor Gene Wilder re­ceives the Gov­er­nor’s Awards for Ex­cel­lence in Cul­ture and Tourism at the Leg­isla­tive Of­fice Build­ing in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, in 2008.

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