The Theresa Duncan Tragedy
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.)
Yet Duncan seemed fearless. After hearing David Sedaris (then a part-time housecleaner) on local public radio, Duncan tracked him down, Gesue says, asking him to narrate the Chop Suey script. When the CD-ROM took off, Gesue says, “We started doing interviews, and I could see that Theresa would have been happier doing them [by] herself. She was always a little competitive with other women.”
Gesue had misgivings about their next project, a story of the Deep South called Shoo-fly Pie — she thought the humor was racist. But, Gesue says, Duncan hotly told Gesue she’d be nowhere without her. “I don’t know what came over me,” says Gesue. “I just said, ‘I can’t work with you anymore.’ ” They argued, and the next day, “I learned that she’d tried to get me fired. They moved us into different offices.”
Then, a manager at Magnet questioned the racially tinged humor and recommended that the Shoo-fly Pie project be shelved. Gesue says Duncan lost control, shouting wildly — and was escorted from the building — a story confirmed to the Weekly by another former Magnet employee. Other staff packed up Duncan’s office things. Yet the two estranged friends still “had to do a photo shoot. It was awful. It was the last time I saw her.”
For Gesue, Duncan’s Shoo-fly Pie meltdown showed a dark side that worked against Duncan. Yet Duncan bounced back, heading to New York and working for Nicholson Interactive, where she created a new game. Dave Colker, in the Los Angeles Times, raved, “ ‘Smartypants’ is far and away the best disk ever for young girls . . . except for her earlier CD-ROM ‘Chop Suey,’ which is even better.”
In New York, Duncan started seeing Blake, a fine-arts grad student from CalArts who was working as a photo retoucher. They grew close, and Blake was hired as the art director on Smartypants. J.C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation, who moved in the same media circles, says New York in 1996 held “the freedom to experiment, to create out of passion . . . Anyone could call up some company and get their idea made.” Duncan impressed journalists, including Anthony Ramirez of The New York Times, who repeated that she had authored a senior thesis at the University of Michigan titled “Electric Fairy Tales: CD-ROMs and Literature.” Even in recent coverage of her suicide, the Los Angeles Times repeated this iconic Duncan tale. Yet U of M spokesperson Joy Myers tells the Weekly the university has no evidence of that thesis or a degree under her name, although Duncan may have written a paper on that subject. Duncan became the darling of an emerging niche market of games for girls, telling People in 1998, “Our model isn’t Bill Gates. It’s Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss.”
The People article identified Duncan’s collaborators as illustrator-boyfriend Blake and humorist Sedaris. In her ever-evolving public persona, Duncan had already obliterated Gesue from her new, official story.
Duncan soon began work on The History of Glamour, an animated spoof documentary that was an unexpected hit in the New York art world, accepted into the Whitney Biennial of American Art 2000. For that project, she assembled a very of-the-moment team including Blake, artist Karen Kilimnik, Blake’s pal Brendan Canty of D.C. proto-punk band Fugazi and former Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox to create the story of Charles Valentine, an androgynously named chick from Antler, Ohio, who becomes a rock icon — but finds that fame doesn’t suit her. Yet Duncan was preoccupied, even then, over whether she was keeping up. In an online forum of the Walker Art Center, she posted this battle cry: “Because competition contains so many shades of human behavior, including altruism, love and kindness, it makes the question ‘Are we winning?’ central to any entertainment.”
Things looked incredibly promising in New York. Duncan was tapped to write and direct Closet Cases, an animated TV series for Oxygen Media, and a pilot for Left of the Dial, a TV series for VH1. She was awarded a grant for a new film called You Got the Look that would explore “popular myths of the outlaw, sex, glamour, and danger, while engaging notions of femininity and class.” In 2001, Variety announced that Duncan had sold a pitch to Fox Searchlight — Alice Underground — and would “pen the script” about teenage girls who kidnap a rock star. A month later, Variety reported Duncan was in talks with Fox to direct a feature based on Francesca Lia Block’s cult novels, the Weetzie Bat series.
But the reality was not nearly as glamorous as the image. Block’s agent, Lucy Stille at Paradigm, told the Weekly that Duncan was never formally attached to a Block project — the Weetzie Bat “talks” were just that. You Got the Look exists only as a proposal. And Alice Underground failed to materialize at Fox. Renee Tab, Duncan’s agent when she died, says Paramount also passed on the script, because of budget issues. Producer Ted Hope, of This Is That Productions, who was familiar with Duncan’s big-budget Alice Underground script, said by e-mail, “Theresa was an original thinker and her script demonstrated that, which is often not helpful in the studio world.”
YET BY ALL OUTWARD APPEARANCES, Duncan had conquered New York — and Hollywood would be next. By 2002 they had settled in Los Angeles, staying in temporary digs at the Chateau Marmont — where else? — then rented a house on a Venice canal. It was time for a career jump, with the CD-ROM market dead. CD-ROMs were, as J.C. Herz now points out, “a temporary art form, like a novella.” But L.A.’s fickle film-and-television industry proved a much tougher challenge for Duncan.
In a written exchange in 2006, Duncan and I discussed how people create personal façades. She wrote, “I said I had the last credits of my B.A. on résumés when I did not. I shave a couple years off my age sometimes, which is the only thing I regret.” In the same exchange, she explained that having arrived in Hollywood, “I tell the truth about all these things all the time. The fantasy is handled in my day job. Plus, my profile is raised and I don’t want any fodder for making me look unreliable when I have to handle large crews and budgets.”
There were, however, no large crews or budgets. A version of Closet Cases can be seen on YouTube, but the authoritative IMDB has no record of either the Oxygen Media or VH1 project coming to fruition. Hollywood journalist Nikki Finke (a columnist for the Weekly) says Hollywood “is littered with the bodies of people who came out here to make it big. There’s a big difference between those who have set deals — someone’s going to make their movie — and those who have shopping agreements.”
Duncan privately struggled to nail down that elusive deal — even as Blake’s career gained steam. His digital art impressed director Paul Thomas Anderson, who hired him to create hallucinogenic sequences for the 2002 movie Punch-Drunk Love. Then Blake worked on Beck’s Sea Change album, creating a series of covers. (Duncan would later claim that this is when Scientology — Beck is a member — first took an interest in the pair.)
Art dealer and gallery owner Christine Nichols, who had known the couple for years, told the Weekly that Duncan sometimes found it hard to see Blake working with anyone but her. Their relationship was so intertwined, Nichols says, “You were either in complete agreement with everything they said or you were an enemy.”
Four years into her life in L.A., with her Hollywood career flagging, Duncan took a minor stab at journalism, penning a piece for Slate on reality shows and two articles for Artforum. (In 2005, at the urging of close friend Blake Robin, who owns a small record label, she had launched her blog, The Wit of the Staircase, where she wrote witty observations about esoteric perfumes, hotel bars and arcane literary works.)
But several odd incidents hinted at Duncan’s increasingly troubled state of mind. She suggested on her blog, without proof, that director Francis Ford Coppola had “smeared and threatened” her because she wrote a mildly critical Artforum review of his daughter’s film Lost in Translation. Yet Tim Griffin, the editor of Artforum, e-mailed the Weekly that “We never received any complaints about her contributions” to the magazine — from Coppola or anyone else.
Slate.com gave Duncan an assignment on celebrity perfumes, editor Julia Turner tells the Weekly, but problems arose after the story went online. Disturbed readers sent Slate some links to works by perfume blogger Victoria Frolova, showing that Duncan had lifted Frolova’s words. “We take that very seriously, and asked Theresa about it — she was upset and confused,” Turner recalls.
Says Turner, “We looked back at the first draft, and there were even more problems. We put up two editor’s notes, which [Duncan] didn’t like at all — but we’ve got a commitment to our readers.” Online perfume forums were abuzz about Duncan’s plagiarism, after which Slate published an apology to Frolova.
Duncan wasn’t all that sorry, writing on her blog that the blogger she plagiarized “acted like I had tried to murder her.” In the same post, Duncan casually dropped hints of living on a higher plane: “When I pitch a film I always begin with the influences, in legendary ‘it’s Jurassic Park-meets-Heidi’ fashion, and then some Hollywood also-ran runs around town saying, ‘It’s Heidi! She stole!’?”
According to Nichols and other friends who spoke to the Weekly only off record, Duncan began blaming her lack of success on the Church of Scientology, saying that the church was influencing “the studios.” Duncan accused her skeptical friends of stealing hair from her hairbrush to send to the Scientology Center, Nichols says, and confided to Nichols, “I really don’t have any friends.”
Duncan’s paranoia began to hurt her professionally. Renee Tab, her agent, tells the Weekly that Duncan was advised to tone down the paranoid talk but called back later to say she had not given that advice to Duncan, but hoped or wished someone had. And two of Duncan’s acquaintances, who refused to be named, say they were so unsettled by Duncan’s campaigns by e-mail, where she accused them of trying to hurt her or Blake’s careers, that they contacted lawyers. Nichols says of Duncan and Blake, “They didn’t just burn their bridges, they exploded them.”
THE ILL-FATED COUPLE LEFT — some might argue fled — Los Angeles last fall. In New York, Blake took a full-time job at Rockstar Games and prepared for a big fall show at the Corcoran Gallery, where he was to be artist in residence. The stylish couple found the perfect apartment in a converted rectory at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.
By uncanny coincidence, activist Father Frank Morales, a controversial figure who probes conspiracy theories, was the pastor. Morales told the Weekly that “Theresa . . . manifested a penchant for looking at things in a dark way,” adding, “She came to [New York] with some hard feelings, some hurt, but she was a bright light.”
She and Jeremy Blake were photographed at New York social events, and she eagerly joined the St. Mark’s fund-raising community. In March, her short story “Topographers” was published in Bald Ego, the au courant magazine edited by Glenn O’Brien. But Duncan never shook off her fear and suspicion. On her blog on May 20, she wrote that author and USC research scholar Reza Aslan was a “Muslim American seeming Homeland Security agent,” and blamed Scientologists for graffiti and a dead cat in her old Venice neighborhood.
Aslan told the Weekly that whenever he appeared on TV, she contacted him with strange rants. He gave Duncan’s threatening messages to his lawyer because “I wanted someone else to know about this.” Aslan knew her for years, and “she had always said kind of crazy, paranoid things,” but “it just got worse and worse. She accused me of being an undercover CIA officer, of eavesdropping on her, of having her FBI file. The conversation she blogged about — about her FBI file — never came up; the whole conversation was completely fictional.
“She was losing her grip on reality, and Jeremy was so devoted to her that he would go along with it . . . It became impossible to ignore, and so my [girlfriend] and I began to extricate ourselves.”
In New York, Duncan continued to push the twin storylines that had enveloped her in Los Angeles. She found more conspiracy — but this time in the New York art world, publicly accusing Blake’s former girlfriend, photographer Anna Gaskell, of being linked to an alleged tangle of right-wing conspirators against her and Jeremy Blake.
And she continued to paint a picture of dream film projects that were just around the corner. Speaking to the Weekly from New York, writer and editor O’Brien says Duncan told his wife, Gina Nanni, she’d gotten a movie deal. And Blake Robin wrote to the Weekly that Duncan “told me she was working very hard ‘on a very exciting project that I can’t wait to share with you that will take all summer long.’ ” But, Robin says, “Jeremy was working hard and she was waiting.”
Theresa Duncan was, undeniably, a creative force — infuriating and inspiring by equal measure. Remembers Nichols: “I always respected her often elegant and eloquent thoughts and her discipline and drive to record them. I am truly sorrowful that fears, insecurities and rage got the best of her.”
Many read Duncan’s words online, and most thought she was glamorous, brilliant, brave, bold, erudite. She was all those things — but those attributes didn’t win in the end. Her blog was called The Wit of the Staircase, the literal translation of the French l’esprit d’escalier. It means a perfect rejoinder that comes too late.