[TW: mentions/descriptions of suicide, mental illness, racism, abuse, and toxic relationships]
James Baldwin is one of those lofty figures of literature whose life is both well-documented and not at the same time. His works’ thematic exploration of race, class, and sexuality in a 20th century United States draws deeply from personal experience. So, then, what of his depictions of suicide and despair?
According to James Baldwin: A Biography, by Baldwin’s close friend David Leeming, he attempted suicide not one, not two, not three—but four times at least. To say he was deeply troubled might be an understatement. Yet, discussion of his struggles with suicide and mental illness remains limited, despite their clear influence on his work. Through information from his biography, we will shed a light on this side of James Baldwin’s life with the hope of raising awareness on the mental health struggles that one of the most accomplished Black authors experienced.
Early Exposure to Suicide
James Baldwin grew up in Harlem, a place where racial and economic tension drove many people to take their lives. When he was 9 to 10 years old, one of his neighbors shot himself with a pistol. The neighbor was called “Johnny on the Spot” because he always came on time, particularly to his girlfriend’s house. However, her family didn’t like how dark-skinned he was and broke off their relationship, leading him to kill himself on their doorstep. Leeming writes: “To Baldwin this incident remained a clear example of the agony, in Harlem and elsewhere, that was the result quite simply of the color of one’s skin.”
Suicide followed Baldwin outside of Harlem and into young adulthood. When he was 22 years old, the love of his life, Eugene Worth, committed suicide. They were not officially lovers, though Worth once wondered aloud in Baldwin’s presence, “I might be in love with you.”
According to Leeming, Baldwin did not pursue this statement further because “he loved Eugene too much and had too little self-esteem to imagine that Eugene could love him in return.” Baldwin would come to regret it for the rest of his life when Worth jumped off the George Washington Bridge in December of 1946, an act that Baldwin’s character Rufus in Another Country would later imitate.
Baldwin was obsessed with the subject of suicide throughout his life, discussing it at great length with a friend when he was as young as 13 years old. Knowing how much of a shadow it cast over his life, is that much of a surprise?
First Recorded Suicide Attempt
Baldwin was a lonely and extremely vulnerable man. His vulnerability madeJames Baldwin: A Biography by David Leeming
him sometimes overly defensive—even, some would say, “paranoid.” In pursuit of
love and approval he squandered money and time and sometimes hurt people. He
was a man, like most people, with evident neuroses. He was not a saint, he was not
always psychologically or emotionally stable. But he was a prophet.
Severe depressive episodes, nervous breakdowns, and alcoholism formed a pattern in Baldwin’s life, going hand in hand with his suicidal tendencies. Leeming states that these tendencies came from “an essential loneliness” related to Baldwin’s sexuality and his self-imposed mission to “translate the painful human experience into art.” This translation included his arrest in France, an experience so painful for him that he tried to hang himself.
In early December of 1949, Baldwin received a stolen hotel bed sheet from an acquaintance as a playful souvenir. Soon after, though, the police apprehended them both and sent them to a cell with common criminals, stripped of shoelaces, belts, and dignity. There, Baldwin spent Christmas on a cold prison floor.
He had descended “to a lower point than any I could ever in my life have imagined—lower, far, than anything I had seen in that Harlem which I had so hated and so loved, the escape from which had soon become the greatest direction of my life.” He had escaped to a deeper hell.
His December 27th trial dismissed the case not to his relief, but to his humiliation. According to Leeming, the court filled with laughter—the kind Baldwin had heard from those “who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched … for whom the pain of living is not real.” Nor was he given a chance to recover: When he returned to his hotel, the landlady informed him he would have to pay his bill within the next hour or get kicked out.
An insecure water pipe saved Baldwin from his own hanging. In a fit of irony, Baldwin tied one of the hotel’s sheets to said pipe and around his neck. When he jumped, the pipe gave way before the sheets could strangle him.
Baldwin was revived by this failure. His experience had given him a new understanding of Blackness—“all of those literally and metaphorically imprisoned ‘blacks’ of all races who must bear the agony of not being recognized as human beings”—and he had lived to tell the tale.
Second Recorded Attempt
James Baldwin’s love life was fraught, to put it lightly. He often sought love with men who did not identify as gay but would have sex with him anyway for money, shelter, or company. He deeply desired a serious relationship, but the lovers he chose were not willing to give it. As a result, he became a victim of beatings, theft, and embezzlement. It’s sad, though not surprising that his suicidal tendencies almost always appeared after a big fight with a partner.
One of his lovers he found while trying to get back together with another. His ex, Lucien, brought home a Black musician named Arnold, and he and Baldwin immediately got along. According to Leeming, “Arnold enjoyed Jimmy’s company and, like so many of his lovers, was willing to accept a sexual relationship to keep it.”
However, enjoyment of each other’s company did not keep the two men from fighting frequently. Within one year, Baldwin became certain that their relationship was doomed to fail. His rising fame did nothing for him—not when his personal life was in ruins.
Not only was the affair with Arnold about to end, but love itself seemed to be “over.”
He could foresee only a series of “fantastically unreal alternatives to my pain,” a desperate loneliness and obsession with self, with sexual and racial isolation.
One particularly nasty fight with Arnold later, Baldwin overdosed on sleeping pills. Thankfully, he realized his mistake right away. He called a friend, who had him vomit up the pills before he saw a doctor. Crisis averted, for now.
Third Recorded Attempt
You would think Baldwin would end his relationship with Arnold after that, and he planned on it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to follow through. During a trip to Corsica, they started getting along again, and Baldwin began to believe that their relationship could last after all.
Then, Arnold dropped a bombshell: He was leaving. He was going to study music in Paris, and he didn’t want Baldwin to come along.
Baldwin’s illusion shattered, he made his way to the sea and waded in until the water reached his hips. He wanted an end to his cycle of broken relationships before he became truly empty inside, “a man ‘to whom nothing matters.’” Maybe the sea would swallow him up and release him someplace where no one knew who he was—or maybe it would just put him out of his misery.
… he left the others listening to Billie Holiday in the living room and went upstairs with his brandy. Still somehow holding on to the glass, as to an anchor, he climbed along the roof of the living room, swung down onto a stone wall, and made his way with difficulty through a patch of briars down to the sea. He finished the brandy, threw the glass into the water, and thought of Virginia Woolf and her walking into the water to her death. He compared the death agony of drowning to the agony of his love affair. The death itself might be rather like the goal that seem unattainable in life. The sea seemed willing to embrace and accept him in a way that the “world” and “life” and “love” had not.
Ultimately, Baldwin’s commitment to the writer’s mission was what saved him. Rather than drown himself, he chose to channel his suicidal thoughts into a journal entry called “The Last Days,” one of his most revealing self-examinations. Five days later, he was applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship to receive funds for his writing pursuit, having given Arnold a large sum of money for his music studies abroad. Once again, he had put off his date with death.
Fourth Recorded Attempt
With Arnold gone, Baldwin reflected on his past relationships, including his regrets around Eugene Worth. He confronted his own agony through confronting Worth’s agony in his writing of Another Country. At the same time, he considered what he could do to help the civil rights movement. He was productive in it, writing essays on racial relations in the United States and giving lectures across the South to share his perspective on racial inequality. As Leeming states, “he was saving himself from despair.”
However, there was one more time Baldwin attempted suicide. Leeming names several factors behind it. There was the usual fight with a lover, this time a young North African dubbed Jean in the biography, but there was also a failed Hollywood venture, the assassinations of multiple figures in the civil rights movement, a false murder charge on one of Baldwin’s friends, an unrequited crush, and general exhaustion from life.
In terms of Hollywood, Baldwin had grand plans for a play based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, only for a producer to take the rights to adapt the book as a film for Columbia Pictures. Luckily, Baldwin received the opportunity to write the screenplay. Unluckily, he could not get Columbia Pictures to agree with his vision for it.
He wanted to “reveal Malcolm to the world,” a mission made all the more important to him by the assassinations of three civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X himself. He was heartbroken by their deaths and felt a responsibility to further their wills for the nation.
Baldwin identified with Malcolm X in particular, having formed a mutual understanding with him based on similarities in their backgrounds: self-education and northern ghettoes. By telling the true story of Malcolm X, Baldwin hoped to “save his country from its own injustice.“
The film, then, was to be a historical statement. The burning of the Littles’ house and the murder of Malcolm’s father would be juxtaposed with the burning of Malcolm’s house and his murder in the Audubon Ballroom. … The one day is today, yesterday, and every day. Nothing has changed in four hundred years of history. Baldwin would rearrange the chronology to open America’s eyes to the parallels and the history that Malcolm saw. He would reveal Malcolm as a previously unrecognized “tragic hero” of American history—of the American soul.
Columbia Pictures had other plans in mind. They wanted to create “a tempered story, a sanitized Malcolm.” This included sending Baldwin a memo that said he must “avoid giving any political implications to Malcolm’s trip to Mecca.” They also didn’t like his screenplay; his first treatment read like a novel, composed of over two hundred pages. And they took issue with his behavior—his working habits, his expensive lifestyle, his insistence on having his own way no matter what. James Baldwin and Hollywood were fundamentally incompatible.
Combined with all the other stressors previously mentioned, the battle with Hollywood was too much for Baldwin to handle. He overdosed on sleeping pills again and was soon discovered and taken to the hospital, where he got his stomach pumped. At that point, he had to face reality: His project with Hollywood was a failure.
That’s not to say this story has a complete downer ending. Baldwin left Hollywood after his suicide attempt and published his screenplay on his own terms, naming it One Day, When I Was Lost. His screenplay might not have saved his country as he had hoped, but he revealed Malcolm X to the world one way or another, in the prose he knew best.
In the end, James Baldwin’s life was as painful as it was filled with accomplishments. He lived in a time where mental illness was less recognized and where his struggles around racism and his own sexuality often went unacknowledged. Yet, he kept on living—and that in itself should be recognized as an achievement.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have made plans to end your life, please know that you deserve help and that it is available to you. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255 for free and confidential support.
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