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Jazz Bird

Onstage, singer Susannah McCorkle exuded a sultry self-confidence that won her lifelong fans. But in private, she fought depression so deep -- and so well hidden -- that a year after her suicide, even some in her most intimate circle wonder how they missed the cries for help.


Oh, Susannah: Promotional photo taken two years ago for Concord Records.  

It was a gorgeous sunday afternoon, May 19, when four friends of jazz singerSusannah McCorkle met in the Conservatory Garden, one of the prettiest spots in Central Park. It was a year to the day since McCorkle jumped to her death from her sixteenth-floor apartment on West 86th Street, the mood was celebratory, if vaguely surreptitious. As an exuberant wedding party passed by and a pair of egrets took wing from a reflecting pool, Thea Lurie, McCorkle's friend of 30 years, quietly spread Susannah's ashes around the singer's favorite spot in the park she cherished.

"It was her secret garden," Lurie said the next day. "Going there to scatter her ashes gave me a place I can go and feel close to her."

If the gathering was upbeat, the months since McCorkle's suicide have been anything but for her friends, as the complexities of the singer's life and death have grown clearer and more painful. Hers was, in many ways, a quintessential New York story, in both its public triumphs and its private tragedy.

Brainy, warm, and funny, McCorkle belonged to an exclusive coterie of American singers: She performed in the best rooms, recorded nineteen albums, and enjoyed more than two decades of acclaim from the jazz press as well as the devotion of fans around the world. But in the months before her death at 55 stunned them all, her record company, Concord, had decided to issue a compilation album instead of a new one, and the Algonquin Hotel had given her precious fall slot at the Oak Room, one of cabaret's most prestigious venues, to a younger singer. McCorkle also felt she was getting nowhere working on a memoir she'd been struggling with for years.

"I've been having a really rough time," she wrote in a rare confession via e-mail to a friend shortly before her death. "Total loss of confidence in self, book, music, etc. Not that I ever had much . . . Feeling totally immobilized. Can't even listen to music, except classical. Avoiding people so word won't get around how down I am."

And mostly, it hadn't. Like so many other talented New Yorkers who found commercial success elusive, McCorkle was a survivor who seemed to take the inevitable frustrations of an artistic career in stride. She never benefited from big corporate packaging muscle, never had the stylistic fungibility to break out the way a Cassandra Wilson or Norah Jones is doing these days. McCorkle's was an intimate art; when she sang, you felt there was no one else in the room but you and the singer. She fixed you with a gimlet eye and a generous smile that connected and didn't let go. If she noticed you at more than one performance, often as not she'd join you for a drink after the set and want to hear everything that had gone on in your life since the last time, and you would be enchanted by pungent, self-deprecating tales of what was happening in hers.

Offstage, she was expert at hiding the depression that would eventually drain her of the will to live. To her family, it seemed as if the only time McCorkle clearly expressed her feelings was when she was performing. "She was very wide-open and truthful when she sang," says her mother, Mimi. "I got to know what she was thinking because she was telling me." McCorkle's sister Maggie felt the same way. "When Susannah was singing, she let her emotions show and she was happy," she said. "It always made me cry. It was the only time she ever spoke to us in a direct way."

To close friends, she seemed troubled but resilient, like the heroines of the torch songs by Rodgers and Hart or Cole Porter she sang with such knowing urgency. "She was so resourceful," says Lurie, a Ford Foundation deputy director and Susannah's most intimate confidante. "Every problem she had to face, she went into action mode. It didn't seem possible that there was anything she couldn't overcome. When my mother had Alzheimer's and it was hard to be around her, Susannah would go and take her out, the only one of my friends who could hang in. She was there 100 percent for her friends."

But as her modest measure of success began to evaporate last May, McCorkle felt she couldn't continue the struggle. Her battle with depression, for which she had sought help from an array of doctors, nutritionists, shrinks, homeopaths, and medications, had left her in despair. Part of the problem, says a mental-health professional who knew her well, was that like many other manic-depressives, she was unable to accept the fact that she needed ongoing medication to remain stable. "She was bipolar II, manic-depressive -- that was in her genes," this person says. "She had to take meds to balance out the chemistry. But she didn't want to be in that category. She would refer to other family members who were on antidepressants and say that she didn't want to be like them."

In fact, an unopened vial of a newly prescribed antidepressant was found on a table the morning after she jumped to her death.

Susannah McCorkle was undoubtedly wired for depression. Her father suffered from bipolar disorder and was a suicide, as was her mother's sister. McCorkle's older sister is schizophrenic. When Susannah was a student at Berkeley, her father was hospitalized following a mental breakdown; she told a therapist she felt obligated to drop out of school and get a job to support her family. The therapist replied that her financial help was not going to save anyone. "You're living in a burning building," she later recalled him saying. "Get out."

And she did, quite literally, adopting the life of an expatriate in Paris, Rome, and London, building a singing career characterized by elegance, impeccable arrangements, and rare musical intelligence. Her distinctive style -- at once sophisticated, sexy, and touchingly sincere -- had earned her three Stereo Review Album of the Year awards. High Fidelity's Francis Davis called her "the best female jazz singer of her generation." In 1990, Esquire named her one of its "Women We Love."

Despite all that, for much of her professional life, she barely got by. "Lots of people just didn't get her," says Dan DiNicola, who was married to Susannah and remained her close friend after their divorce. "Sometimes I would look at her and think, They are never going to appreciate her until she is dead."

And indeed, since Most Requested Songs, the greatest-hits collection McCorkle had reluctantly put together, was released in August, it has sold more than any of her previous albums. In February, Concord re-released Dream, another collection, and the label is preparing a new compilation, Ballad Essentials, to be released this summer. Nick Phillips, her producer at Concord, says that he still gets letters and e-mails from fans inspired by her music.

In the early-morning hours of May 19, 2001, McCorkle sent off a series of e-mails to friends. She fed her two cats, and at about 3 a.m. placed a one-page handwritten note in an envelope and addressed it to Thea Lurie. In her pocket, she slipped her business card; on the back, she had written Lurie's name and telephone number, as well as DiNicola's. Then she hurled herself out the window.

". . . Please believe that I do this because I am convinced that my illness cannot be helped for any length of time and I cannot bear to be a burden on anyone any longer," her letter to Lurie read in part. "Please convey my love to everyone I leave behind. I just can't keep fighting myself and my own biochemistry any longer . . . "

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