Jazz Bird

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 … “

Few of her friends knew that McCorkle’s parents belonged to the Hemlock Society and that she grew up believing it was acceptable to take one’s own life. Few people knew that after a stroke and a diagnosis of inoperable cancer in 1994, her father had killed himself with pills and a plastic bag, and that her mother’s sister had also taken her own life a year later. Once, Susannah confided to Thea Lurie that the only reason she hadn’t killed herself yet was because of the devastation it would cause her best friend.

“There are people who think about suicide and people who don’t,” Lurie says. “Susannah was someone who thought about suicide. She was someone for whom it was not a foreign idea.”

But McCorkle gave no hint of her thoughts when she talked with clinical psychologist Eric Olson, a fan in Washington who became her lover in the late nineties, and who spent decades researching whether his father – a CIA scientist who had been secretly given hallucinogens – jumped or was thrown to his death from a hotel window. In 2001, she and Olson spoke for hours about technical details: how to get out the window, whether to go out headfirst or perch on the ledge, the minimum height required to ensure death. “I thought we were talking about my father,” Olson says. “Now I wonder.”

Four out of five suicides in the U.S. are men. It’s a surprising statistic, given that women attempt suicide twice as often as men do. Unlike men, though, women tend to fail. The experts term their efforts “pleas for help” rather than serious efforts to die. But in what was apparently her first try at taking her own life, McCorkle succeeded. Further, instead of employing the most common means, namely guns, pills, or suffocation, she jumped, a method chosen by only 1 or 2 out of every 50 women of her age and background. Lurie believes she did so because she truly wanted to die and picked the most surefire means.

“One doctor who knew me and knew her,” Lurie recalls, “said you have to realize that in a very real sense, Susannah died of natural causes.”

Susannah McCorkle was an original literally from the day of her birth on New Year’s Day, 1946, the official first day of the baby boom, in Berkeley, California. Her father, Tom, was an anthropology professor and academic nomad; her mother, Margery (known as Mimi), a housewife and part-time schoolteacher. The family, which included Katy, born in 1943, and Maggie, born in 1954, moved often; by the time Susannah graduated from high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she had attended more than a dozen schools.

The McCorkle home was an oasis of liberal politics and progressive values. The kids called their parents by their first names, and there were few rules – which made visiting a special treat for other kids. “Everything was so loose,” recalls Susannah’s cousin, Marianna Beatty. “If the adults had been up late having a party, we’d get leftover hors d’oeuvre for breakfast.” But for Tom and Mimi’s children, life at home sometimes felt too loose. “It wasn’t a very kid-focused place,” Maggie admits. “I think my parents were more interested in their own lives than in us.”

Nothing but blue skies: Susannah McCorkle in Venice, 1968.

The constant moves and parental laissez-faire were hard on Susannah. Resentful and lonely, she found escape bingeing on sweets and in books. She also became an acute observer of people. Lying on the floor listening to her mother’s recordings of Broadway musicals, Susannah once told radio interviewer Terry Gross, she tried to understand the stories and to figure out why the people who were singing “were happy or why they were unhappy.”

When McCorkle entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, she found a substitute family in the talented bohemians who put out the campus humor magazine, The Pelican. More important, she found a powerful new way to channel her turbulent feelings: by writing about them. Under the pseudonym Susan Savage, she turned out satires of campus life. Fluent in five languages and a gifted mimic, she regaled staff members with her impersonations of everyone, from Jeanne Moreau to Marcello Mastroianni, seen onscreen at the foreign-film clubs that were essential to sophisticated college campuses.

“She was funny and smart and curvy,” says staff member Jon Carroll, now a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. “But she had no idea that she had a powerful effect on men. She wasn’t being disingenuous – any good news about herself was impossible to accept.”

After her father’s breakdown, she used money her parents had set aside for her graduate studies to go to Europe. There she wrote a devastatingly personal short story called “Ramona by the Sea” that Mademoiselle published in 1973 and later won an O. Henry award.

An Italian-literature major, McCorkle picked up work dubbing films and translating. Expecting to become Europeanized, she instead discovered American movies and music, especially jazz. One day she heard a recording by Billie Holiday. On the spot, she decided to pursue a career as a jazz singer.

“It was pretty nervy for a white girl,” says Glen Barros, president of Concord Records. “Lots of artists are doing it today, but in the seventies and into the eighties, it took a lot of guts.” Undaunted, McCorkle got a job singing on an Italian cruise ship and made a stab at voice lessons – despite the dismissive verdict of a famed Italian voice coach that she would “never be anything more than a microphone singer.” Francesco Forti, a well-known clarinetist, helped her find work in Rome. Forti, a sophisticated and handsome man in his mid-forties, soon became her lover, but he was married, and in 1972, Susannah split for London.

Making her way around the clubs, McCorkle met her future accompanist, Keith Ingham, who had left Oxford and ancient Chinese literature to work as a jazz pianist. When Chris Ellis, then a junior producer at EMI, heard her sitting in with Ingham, he was stunned. “My jaw hit the floor,” Ellis says. “There was this blonde American girl sounding like Billie Holiday. It was amazing.” The only problem, he told her, was that there had already been a Billie Holiday. “You have to sound like yourself,” he said. “I’ll help you if you’re willing to work, but you’ll have to sweat.”

She did. For the next year, she culled the American pop catalogue for music that suited her. She focused on the stories within the songs and paid attention to the words. Her phrasing and articulation, so precise and controlled (strangers sometimes asked if English was her native tongue), as well as the unpolished quality of her voice all became assets, lending familiar songs a fresh appeal.

“She attracted a lot of bright people,” Ingham recalls. “She could take a circumstance that might be humiliating, like standing and singing on a chair or a milk carton in an after-hours club, and turn it into a plus, make it fun.”

McCorkle’s first solo recording, in 1976, was an album of songs by 42nd Street composer Harry Warren, who later told cabaret star Michael Feinstein that he liked her version of “Sweet and Slow” better than Ella Fitzgerald’s. “Susannah captured the song’s essence,” Feinstein says. “She was wry and humorous and sexy and sad. That’s a lot to pack into one piece.”

With a second album, of songs by Johnny Mercer, in the stores, McCorkle and Ingham realized it was time to move to New York. They landed gigs at two of the top jazz spots of the moment, the Cookery, in Greenwich Village, and Michael’s Pub, on the East Side. Rex Reed, then a Daily News critic, raved about the Warren and Mercer albums, and a new McCorkle recording received a Grammy nomination. Jacqueline Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, called to congratulate her and made sure the new album was in the front window of Doubleday’s anchor bookstore at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue.

But the struggle to make it took a toll on Susannah’s personal life. In 1980, she left Ingham, by then her husband, and moved to an apartment on the sixteenth floor of their building, the Parc Cameron. “She was tough about her career,” says Ingham, “but she wasn’t tough-skinned. An argument would really leave her undone.”

In 1981, during a gig in Schenectady, Susannah was interviewed by Dan DiNicola, a reporter for the local CBS television station and a jazz enthusiast. “I was taken with her work the first time I heard her,” he said later. “Usually in jazz, the emphasis is on the feel and the swing, the improvisation, and there is almost a disdain for the lyrics.” But when McCorkle sang, he saw people who usually ignored the lyrics stop and listen. “When they heard her,” he said, “they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what that song is all about.’ “

He was also taken with Susannah. Three years after they’d met, she moved to Schenectady. They purchased a thirties stucco bungalow that she took pleasure in decorating after their marriage, and she developed deep relationships with DiNicola’s three grown children.

Eventually, DiNicola landed McCorkle a contract with Concord, a small but well-regarded jazz label, and a regular gig at the Algonquin. Pouring herself into tight gold lamé, she sold out the Oak Room with her entertaining patter and fresh takes on classics like “If I Only Had a Heart” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” She also championed contemporary writers like Dave Frishberg (“My Attorney, Bernie”) and Fran Landesman (“Feet, Do Your Stuff”). She had a particular affinity for bossa nova and made Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters of March” – a jazz Rite of Spring full of jagged, antiphonal images – her personal anthem.

DiNicola brought her the warmth, attention, and closeness she had yearned for her whole life. But none of it enabled Susannah to conquer the bouts of depression that had plagued her since childhood. In 1990, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo surgery, reconstruction, and radiation, she felt even more desolate (though in public, she became a poster girl for cancer survival, wearing revealing outfits and performing for cancer patients).

Increasingly, she worried about her biochemistry. She had seen depression torment her father, and while Susannah was in Europe, her sister Katy’s illness grew so severe that she ended up homeless. Although Katy later entered a residential program and found medication that kept her stable, Susannah refused any contact with her. “She never could adjust to having this in her family,” Maggie says. “She wrote my dad off and she wrote Katy off. I think she was so fearful of becoming like them that she couldn’t face it.”

Although McCorkle had always commuted between Schenectady and New York, her stays at the Parc Cameron grew longer after her cancer surgery, and by 1999, she and DiNicola had amicably split up. Susannah created a new, compartmentalized existence. When she felt too depressed to see anyone, she relied on e-mail, screening phone calls with her answering machine; when she felt like socializing, she arranged to be a weekend houseguest at Rex Reed’s country home or another friend’s place, always bringing house gifts and good cheer.

She wrote a series of erudite articles for American Heritage on popular composers and singers, including Irving Berlin, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith. In 1999, she decided to use the journals that she had kept in Italy as the basis for a memoir or possibly a novel. At the same time, she became involved with Dan Moran, a dentist and poet who lived on Shelter Island. “She had this incredible romantic streak,” Moran recalls. “The first time she came out here, I had a handful of daffodils in my hand and she pressed one in a book.

“She seemed so cocky and suave and sexy onstage,” Moran adds. “People expected that from her, and I did for a while.” What he found instead, he says, was a wounded girl who felt that she was over the hill. “I didn’t see her being really up very often.” The relationship ended after just seven months. Once again alone, McCorkle fought against the feeling of being swept under. But every day, she race-walked in Central Park. At Lincoln Center, she led music workshops for children. She went to plays, films, museums, and lectures, and ate dinner with friends.

A few weeks before her last Algonquin gig, McCorkle stopped taking her antidepressant, saying she didn’t need it in order to continue “staying positive” and complaining about the medication’s side effects. She consulted a homeopath, then latched on to a new project: redoing her apartment. Walls that had always been standard-issue New York white turned sage green, light blue, and, in the kitchen, bright yellow, red, and blue.

Nevertheless, nothing seemed to be going right for her. In December 2000, her mother had a heart attack and Susannah flew out to California. Plunging in, she spoke to her mother’s doctors, lined up home care, cleaned and rearranged. In the spring, she asked Mimi for a loan, telling her that she had savings but needed cash. Mimi initially said yes, but a few days later, she announced that because of limited resources, Susannah’s earning potential, and her other daughters’ needs, she was changing her answer to no.

Susannah was devastated. Concord had already told her of the plan to release a compilation of her best recordings instead of springing for a new one. It was hard to argue with the numbers: Only one of Susannah’s albums had sold more than 10,000 copies, and that was in 1993. “We had invested a lot in her, and we weren’t seeing growth,” says Concord president Glen Barros. “The people making decisions in retail stores don’t look at the musical aspect. They just want to make a certain amount per square foot.”

McCorkle had also learned that after eleven years, she would not be singing at the Algonquin the next fall. It was a bitter and unexpected blow, for she had been manager Arthur Pomposello’s first act when he took over the Oak Room. “She was exactly what was needed,” he recalls. “She made me look like Ziegfeld.”

Pomposello insists that McCorkle turned down his offer to sing in a new jazz series in the summer. But to her, being bounced from the prime season marked her a has-been. Typically, she related one bit of bad news to one friend and another piece to another, but she didn’t say enough to anyone, not even to Thea Lurie, to cause serious alarm.

Instead, Susannah simply withdrew. Four days before the end, she promised one concerned acquaintance that she would take the Tegretol just prescribed by a psychopharmacologist. The next day, she went race-walking with Linda Fennimore, a violinist who had once been paralyzed from a spinal injury, and asked for some of her positive energy. Although the day was gray, McCorkle kept her sunglasses on; behind them, Fennimore says, she thought Susannah was crying. When they finished their walk, Susannah asked Fennimore to keep going. “I think she was trying to pull herself out,” Fennimore says. “She asked me, ‘How do you do it?’ Almost the last words she said to me were, ‘I can’t climb out of this one.’ “

Today, Susannah McCorkle has entered the pantheon of artists who achieve their greatest recognition after a violent death. Sales of her recordings spiked immediately after her death, selling out at stores in New York and San Francisco. Most Requested Songs, released in August, reached No. 5 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Chart, the highest spot she ever attained, and all her recordings remain in print.

On the anniversary of McCorkle’s death, Thea Lurie was roused from a deep sleep by her lost friend.

“I’d left the radio on that night,” Lurie says, “and I was awakened at five by her singing ‘Feet, Do Your Stuff.’ It was a little eerie at first, but then it was wonderful to hear a song where she sounded so happy and upbeat and buoyant.”

As always with a Susannah McCorkle recording, the lyric came through true and clear. It’s a song about leaving.

Jazz Bird