By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IN 2001, THERESA DUNCAN was on top of the world. She had a two-picture deal with Fox Searchlight, and came to Los Angeles confident in her ability to conquer Hollywood. In July 2007, she was dead by her own hand, having washed down an overdose of Tylenol PM with bourbon in her Greenwich Village apartment. New York police say her handwritten note indicated she was at peace with her decision.
News of her suicide spread on the Internet, where she had gained a small but devoted audience as a blogger. A week after her suicide, her longtime romantic partner Jeremy Blake, 35, went missing, his clothes and wallet found on the Atlantic shore at Far Rockaway with a note implying he had walked into the sea.
Online conspiracy theorists quickly repeated Duncan’s accounts of being harassed by mysterious forces, including the Church of Scientology.Others saw a twinship with poet Sarah Hannah, herself a recent suicide, and still others saw parallels to an elaborate alternate reality game. Experts, some of whom had never met her, weighed in on everything from her mental state to her sexiness.
I knew her, and I knew that much of what she wrote about her world was an elaborate tale, taken as fact by the uninitiated. Duncan blogged daily on her elegant Web site, The Wit of the Staircase, about her bohemian-chic cottage on a Venice canal, meetings of the slightly sinister and probably nonexistent Lunar Society of Los Angeles, and the turbulent love life of Kate Moss.
But her image as a player in Hollywood, albeit one with powerful enemies, was at odds with the facts. Perhaps she got tired of patching the little fissures that threatened to destroy her carefully constructed fantasy. Maybe that is why, at 40, she decided not to go on.
For years, Duncan’s storytelling made her a success, as she commingled girly creativity with the high-tech world. She made a splash with her first CD-ROM game for girls, Chop Suey, selected by Entertainment Weekly as 1995’s CD-ROM of the Year. In 1998, with the dot-com craze heating up, she told Chris Larson of Cosmopolitan, “At my old job . . . I started playing with the World Bank’s computers. The more I learned about new media, the more I saw the chance to tell stories — children’s stories, of course — in a really creative new way.”
The Cosmo piece was headlined, “Turn your obsession into your dream profession” — a title that, looking back, seems to have contained a warning about what was to come.
Most of what Duncan told Cosmo nine years ago was true — but not all of it. Even then, she indulged in embroideries, shaving a few years off her youthful age in 1995, telling Entertainment Weekly she was 27. (Born in 1966, she was 28 or 29.) And although friends thought Duncan had graduated from Wayne State or the University of Michigan, both universities tell the L.A. Weekly they have no record of her degree. Cary Logan, her friend, confirms that she worked at his bookstore while attending Wayne State; officials there say that she did, at least, attend classes.
DESPITE HER SOMETIMES FANCIFUL personal history, Duncan’s story was filled with vividly authentic tales. Long before the career downturns and aborted projects piled up in Los Angeles, she really did work at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. And she really did co-create Chop Suey.
Monica Lynn Gesue, who created Chop Suey with Duncan, first met her in an elevator at the World Bank. “I saw Theresa in the elevator, plaid tights, purple sequin miniskirt,” she told the Weekly shortly after the dual deaths. Duncan left the World Bank for Magnet Interactive, where she worked the phones, and helped Gesue get a job there too. “I was grateful,” recalls Gesue. “I dreamt up the idea for Chop Suey, and I went to Theresa. We went to lunch at Dean & DeLuca, and she wrote up the proposal and pitched it. She was the most confident person in the world. She had the brains, the charisma to get it made.”
For two years, Gesue and Duncan worked on the story of two little girls, Lily and June Bugg, who ate too much at the Ping Ping Palace. In the tale, the girls look at clouds that change from teapots into tennis shoes into Aunt Vera — a character who acts as a window into another world.
Gesue, today an illustrator, says, “I loved her like a sister. Theresa was a larger-than-life personality. Sometimes wonderful and charming, and other times scary and downright vicious . . . She had this great apartment in Mount Pleasant, with all sorts of stuff — gilded mirrors, stuffed furniture, tons of books. She wasn’t promiscuous, she wasn’t preppy, she wasn’t punk rock. She was unique.””
One day, Gesue recalls, an employee in Human Resources at Magnet whispered to her, “Theresa lies about everything.” Duncan had a dark childhood, but it was never clear which bits were real. “She claimed [her father] had serious mental-health problems and was notorious around town for doing bizarre things,” recalls Gesue. “She also said that her mom had to work two jobs — one stocking shelves in a grocery store at night, often having to leave them all alone in a freezing house with not enough to eat.” (Duncan’s mother did not return calls to the Weekly.)