The July suicides, one week apart, of inseparable New York multi-media artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake rocked their hip downtown crowd.
by Nancy Jo Sales
On a rainy October night in Washington, D.C., the friends and family of Jeremy Blake gathered for a private memorial service at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Blake, an art-world star acclaimed for his lush and moody “moving paintings,” shape-shifting innovations mixing abstract painting and digital film, had ended his life on the night of July 17, walking into the Atlantic Ocean off Rockaway Beach, Queens, never to return.
“I am going to join the lovely Theresa,” Blake, 35, had written on the back of a business card, which he left on the beach, along with his clothes. Police helicopters searched for him for days on the chance he might still be alive. Friends prayed that he was, talking of how his passport was missing, he had bought a ticket to Germany. Then on July 22, a fisherman found his body floating 4.5 miles off Sea Girt, New Jersey.
“The lovely Theresa” was Theresa Duncan, a writer, filmmaker, computer-game creator, and Blake’s girlfriend of 12 years. He had found her lifeless body on July 10, in the rectory of St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan’s East Village, where the couple had been renting an apartment. There was a bowl full of Benadryl pills, a bottle of Tylenol PM, and a champagne glass on the nightstand. There was a note saying, “I love all of you.” Duncan was 40. The last post on her blog, “The Wit of the Staircase,” was a quote from author Reynolds Price about the human need for storytelling and the impossibility of surviving in silence.
No one who spoke at Blake’s memorial service that evening at the Corcoran said anything about Theresa Duncan. Almost no one mentioned her name. (It happened to be her birthday, October 26.) No one talked about the dark stories and wild speculation that had emerged after news of the couple’s “double suicide” hit the media. There had been reports they had become “paranoid,” obsessed with conspiracy theories, believing they were being harassed by Scientologists. The Internet filled up with conjecture about government plots and murder. Something about their story seemed to capture the modern imagination, if only because no one knew exactly why two such accomplished and attractive people had chosen to make their exit.
Only Blake’s mother, Anne Schwartz Delibert, ventured near the controversy, saying from onstage that “Jeremy didn’t die from love, but of pain, and an inability to find a way out of it.” In a slide show going on behind her, a blond, mustachioed man could be seen holding Blake as a baby. It was his father, who died of aids when Blake was 17, but she never named him.
No one told the love story of Theresa and Jeremy. They remembered Blake’s handsome face, his style, his cool, his artistic originality. “He invented something new,” said his gallerist, Lance Kinz, of Kinz, Tillou and Feigen in New York. The slide show shuffled forward with scenes of Blake’s solidly suburban childhood in Takoma Park, Maryland. There he was as a gawky teenager, drawing, and as the impossibly suave and perceptive-looking young man he was to become. And then, finally, there was Theresa Duncan.
“Lovely” didn’t seem strong enough a word. Maybe gorgeous, sexy, charismatic. With her streaky blond hair and effortless chic, she looked like a 60s movie icon. Her intensity seemed to jump from the screen with a howl at the way no one was talking about her. How could you talk about Jeremy without talking about Theresa?
“They were remarkable people,” said David Ross, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “I can’t think of one without the other. It was flattering to be in their presence. You felt good that they liked you.”
There were Theresa and Jeremy, arms wrapped around each other, staring into each other’s eyes. They looked as if they shared a secret, one of those cosmic kinds of love. But as the snapshots traveled forward, following them from Washington to Los Angeles to New York, they began to look unhappier, brooding, worried, tired.
“In the summer of 2006, I saw my brother for the first time in years,” said Blake’s 18-year-old sister, Adrienne, crying, “and I could tell he was completely different from what he had been. It frightened me.”
In their final days in New York, Blake and Duncan would seek refuge from the demons they believed were chasing them in the company of a radical Episcopalian priest, Frank Morales. Morales became one of their closest friends and confidants. He is also my ex-husband. We were married in 2004 and separated in 2006, a few months before he met the couple. The day after Jeremy Blake disappeared, Frank showed up at my door. He was visibly upset and said he wanted to talk. “What about?,” I asked. I hadn’t seen him in months. He started to tell me the story. “He slipped through our fingers,” Frank said of Blake.
In a letter dated August 9, 2006, Blake and Duncan’s landlord in Venice, California, Sabrina Schiller, informed them that they had to move out. The neighbors on either side of their quaint Craftsman bungalow had told her, Schiller said, that they were “determined to seek police protection if necessary.”
A statement in support of their eviction was taken from one of the neighbors, Katharine O’Brien, 25, then the girlfriend of indie movie producer Brad Schlei (Swingers, Dogtown). Earlier in the year, Schlei, a collector of Blake’s work, had hired him to direct an adaptation of the George Pelecanos novel Nick’s Trip.
“On the evening of May 9, 2006,” said O’Brien’s statement, “Theresa approached my bungalow and rapped on the window. Upon opening the door I was immediately greeted with the following questions Theresa said to me, ‘Jeremy and I have started a club where we’ve found a bunch of old men and we’re letting them fuck us in the ass, and we wanted to know if you wanted to be a part of it.’ I asked Theresa if she was joking. She said ‘no’ and repeated herself. I asked if she was trying to imply something about the age difference between my boyfriend and me.” (Schlei is 41.) “She said ‘no,’ smiled, and walked away.
“That night”—a night Blake seemed to be away, uncharacteristically leaving Duncan alone—“Theresa … returned to my bungalow five or six times,” the statement continued. “Out of the blue, she asked if I was a Scientologist For the record, I have no connection whatsoever with Scientology, and have never been a Scientologist.”
In the months prior to this encounter, the two couples—Duncan and Blake and O’Brien and Schlei—had become friendly with each other. Schlei had even signed the “loyalty oath” Blake and Duncan had taken to asking of some friends. “I just want to get this film made,” Schlei told someone.
“Theresa was acting very strangely,” O’Brien’s statement said. “She was displaying jerking body movements; her face and hands were twitching. She continued to accuse me of being a Scientologist and part of a Scientology conspiracy to defame her At times I would hear her cackling and hooting from the alley.
“The next day, May 11, [Blake] withdrew from the business relationship he had with my boyfriend, claiming that I was a Scientologist and that my masters in Santa Barbara (my parents’ home) were instructing me to defame Theresa.”
Schlei says that Blake later told him he could provide him with “proof” that O’Brien was a Scientologist, but he never did. In July, when O’Brien came home and picked up her mail, she wrote, Duncan “shrieked ‘cult whore’ and ‘cult hooker’ repeatedly. She was very frightening.”
A Life in Turnaround
Lovely Theresa Duncan liked to go for drives along the Pacific Coast Highway in her butter-colored Alfa Romeo Spider, listening to Steely Dan. She liked the band for the stories they told about hard-luck characters. Some of their lyrics were read at her funeral, on July 21, in Lapeer, Michigan, her hometown.
In 2002, the year she and Jeremy Blake moved to Los Angeles (they had been living in New York since 1995), Duncan was riding the crest of a seven-year wave of success. Stories about “Silicon Alley’s dream girl” had appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, People, along with dozens of photographs of her looking glamorous. She had been to “new media” what Jane Pratt was to magazines or Tabitha Soren to MTV—the pretty girl, the chosen one. Her CD-roms, Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero, had been hailed as breakthrough games for girls. Chop Suey was named Entertainment Weekly’s “CD-rom of the Year” in 1995.
When she moved to Los Angeles, Duncan had a two-picture deal with Fox Searchlight and had written and directed a pilot for Oxygen Media. She had “my boyfriend Jeremy Blake”—she was always bringing him up—literally the poster boy of the 2001 “BitStreams” exhibition of digital art at the Whitney Museum. That same year, Blake had been tapped by director Paul Thomas Anderson to create a hallucinogenic dream sequence for Punch Drunk Love, and singer-songwriter Beck had asked him to do a series of covers and a video for his album Sea Change (both released in 2002).
And then, something began to go very wrong.
“Yes, it looks like New York is a good idea for a few,” Blake wrote breezily in an e-mail to a friend on December 22, 2006, announcing that he and Duncan were moving back. They had evacuated their Venice bungalow two weeks after receiving their landlord’s August letter, cramming themselves into the small office space near the beach Blake had been using as a studio. They were low on funds.
Blake wrote of how he and Duncan had been “harassed here to the point of absurdity” by people who were so “paranoid” that it made him “laugh.” He said that they had been “defamed by crazy Scientologists,” threatened and followed by “their thugs.” (The Church of Scientology has denied any knowledge of the couple.) He wrote of how New York was starting to seem like the place for them to be, a place where they could speak “freely” to “exceptional people” and get their projects started.
Meanwhile, Hollywood, Blake said, was “under a pathetic right-wing invasion” by the Bush administration and “extremist religious groups.” He mentioned a couple of media companies with obvious Republican leanings. And then he said, “They are even running ads on the Cartoon Network recruiting people to be in the CIA!”
He spoke of how he was beginning to realize that his work had the “power to influence” a global audience without the need for “corporate backing.” “I am starting to see this as a very powerful thing,” he said. “Almost miraculous. Best, J.B.”
Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan first met in 1994. They were both part of the activist, “positive force” punk-rock scene in Washington (think Fugazi, Bikini Kill). He hung around with the band Nation of Ulysses, believed in punk as a philosophy. It was a macho, hipster scene. The women tended to stay in the background, dressed frumpy. Theresa called them “the hausfraus 2000.” She went to parties wearing sequined hot pants. Her boyfriend was Mitch Parker, former bassist of Government Issue. They had a song called “Asshole.” Sometimes she would take out her compact and apply lipstick when someone was boring her.
She had moved to Washington in 1989 to take a job at a family friend’s antiques store. It was a way to get out of Detroit, where she’d been working mostly dead-end jobs after high school. (She never finished college.) She was born in nearby Lapeer (population 9,330), which she described on her blog as “subject to incredible boredom punctured by baroque social intrigue.”
She was Mimi Smartypants, star of Smarty. “At the quarry in July,” she wrote, “my cousins told me the water was ‘bottomless,’ and so I hugged the shore and learned to swim in the Lapeer library instead, suspecting already exactly what the limitless meant Ever after I knew all the haunted shades of meaning that were captive in other people’s words. And for that they called me mad.”
Her conversations were always racing with ruminations about “film, philology, Vietnam War memorabilia, rare and discontinued perfume”—listed on her blog as “Interests”—and facts about such obscure historical personages as “the owner of Napoleon’s penis” (a true story) and the “tiny Spanish bullfighter Manolete, who died so tragically in the ring in the 1940s.”
The house she grew up in was on a dirt road. When she was little, her mother, Mary, stocked shelves in a grocery store; her father, Donnie, was a factory worker. A friend said that “some really bad things happened to her” with men; she thought “every man was out to get her.” But she never let it show. People said she was the most confident person in the world. She wanted to be famous. She wanted to be noticed.
Jeremy wanted to be a hero. “I liked reading about heroic behavior and the constant ethical dilemmas of Marvel characters spoke to me directly,” he said in an interview. “They were a precursor to the punk records I have still not outgrown.” He told a friend that he “took his personality cues from Chevy Chase in Caddyshack and Han Solo in Star Wars.” Some people thought he was a snob, drinking his Manhattans and smoking his Nat Sherman cigarettes, until they realized he was just an artist, and funny and shy.
He made her laugh.
They moved to New York separately in 1995 and ran into each other backstage at a concert at the Knitting Factory that year. She was “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window,” Jeremy told someone, quoting Raymond Chandler. She was just this girl in Washington and now she was famous—everybody was talking about her. How’d she do that? (Nerve. She was a receptionist at a Washington CD-rom company, Magnet Interactive, when she walked into the boss’s office with a pitch dreamed up by a co-worker, whom she made her partner.)
He was 23, she 28. They started talking and they never stopped. He thought she was lovely.
She was a little bit wild (not sexually, God no—she was rather demure there—intellectually) and Jeremy loved wildness in people. “By wildness I’m not referring to some corny idea of rock ’n’ roll excess,” he said. “I’m talking about an internal turbulence and inventiveness that keeps the person and everyone around him or her on their toes.”
She could be combative. She let people know there was a line they couldn’t cross with her.
He was working as a photo retoucher when they got together. He had just graduated from Cal Arts, didn’t really know what he wanted to “do” except that he wanted to make art. He wasn’t interested in fame; he wanted to change the world, to tell stories through art that exposed racism, class inequality, violence. Did that make sense? It did to her.
She hired him as her illustrator and art director at Nicholson New York, a new-media company with offices in the Puck Building. They did Smarty in 1996. He loved making the pictures of the smart little blonde girl with big brown eyes. They did Zero Zero in 1997. “They were co-muses,” said a friend.
He loved the way they lived, starting with the style of their apartment on Broome Street—it was like a reflection of her intricate brain, stuffed with all her books and knickknacks. He teased her, called her “Tucky,” for Tucky the Squirrel, some squirrel on a billboard for a storage-space company. She was a pack rat.
He loved that they knew interesting people, had them over all the time—artists, musicians, writers, producers—constantly drank, smoked, laughed, and never turned on the television.
She started promoting him. As with everything else she did, she was fervent about it, making friends with gallerists in the New York art world (Andrea Rosen, Bronwyn Keenan). Suddenly his work was showing everywhere. He was getting known himself.
Her confidence was contagious. It was “punk.” Inspired, he started making art on his computer—deeply hued, slow-moving films that were “difficult to categorize and that’s part of the fun,” he said. “I think I have invented a new, more poetic kind of pop art that blends elements of pop and noir.” His first solo shows, in New York and Los Angeles in 1999, blew everybody away.
She made him feel free, and that made him feel loyal. Jeremy had a thing about loyalty, said friends, maybe something to do with his father’s death. No one knew for sure; all anyone could say with certainty was that Jeremy and Theresa loved each other.
“Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?” a Los Angeles reporter once asked her. “Asleep in Jeremy Blake’s arms,” she said.
It’s All in Your Mind
It was The History of Glamour—the witty, 40-minute-long animated film Duncan made while at Nicholson—that got her noticed by Hollywood. The film, a semi-autobiographical satire about the rise of an indie-girl rocker, showed in the 2000 Whitney Biennial—another milestone in Duncan’s own ascendance. (Glamour was co-illustrated by Jeremy Blake.) It’s hard, watching it now, to understand how Duncan ever wound up a suicide. Her movie is full of wry humor and silliness, and is a cautionary tale about the emptiness of fame and the corrupting influence of ambition.
Ironically, the attention it received only made Duncan more ambitious. “I’ve been thinking of us in terms of something like the Warhol factory,” she crowed to Salon, when asked about her “creative team.”
But in Hollywood, no one gets to be Warhol, not even Warhol. “She seemed a bit naïve about Hollywood,” said Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren (whom Blake had been working on a portrait of when he died). “She went in hoping people would listen to her, but in Hollywood you’re the one who has to listen.”
For two years, between 2002 and 2004, she struggled to get her script Alice Underground made, wondering why things weren’t happening as fast for her as they had in the gaming industry, where she was an instant star. Alice Underground—the story of a rock star who is kidnapped by two New York prep-school girls (with echoes of The World of Henry Orient)—was originally part of Duncan’s two-picture deal at Fox Searchlight. She wanted to make a more expensive and complicated film than the studio had envisioned, but she also had, she said, a real rock star attached. In early 2003, she began telling people that she had secured a promise from Beck to act in the vehicle.
“Beck and I met repeatedly to discuss the film,” she later e-mailed someone.
“We never met to discuss doing her film,” Beck e-mailed Vanity Fair. “I did read her script eventually.” But he said he never agreed to be in her movie.
The postmodern rocker described his relationship with Blake and Duncan as “a passing social acquaintance.” “I met Jeremy in summer 2002 when we worked on the Sea Change artwork,” he said. “After that, I saw him out a handful of times We exchanged occasional e-mails. The last time I heard from them was 2004.”
Meanwhile, Duncan was e-mailing people photographs of herself and Blake relaxing on a Malibu beach with Beck and his wife, Marissa Ribisi (twin sister of actor Giovanni Ribisi), who was pregnant at the time, dating the photograph to 2004. (Marissa gave birth to their first child, Cosimo, that year.)
Duncan told people that their friendship ended abruptly when Beck called her up out of the blue, she said, politely bowing out of her film without explanation.
“I did explain to her I wasn’t looking to act right then,” Beck said, “and with the album, tour schedule, and a baby on the way, it wouldn’t be feasible to do a film.”
Duncan seemed personally wounded—frustrated, too, at another setback in her efforts to get a movie made. She blamed the Church of Scientology.
Beck’s involvement in Scientology was unconfirmed to the public until 2005, when he acknowledged his affiliation in an interview with The New York Times, lauding the sect for its work with illiterate kids and drug addicts. His father, musician David Campbell, who lives in Los Angeles, is also a Scientologist, as is his wife, Marissa.
According to Duncan, sometime in their two-year acquaintance, Beck expressed to her and Blake a desire to leave the church, and they had offered him encouragement and even assistance. “That’s ridiculous. Totally false,” Beck said. “Had we been closer and discussed anything as personal as religion, I would have only had positive things to say about Scientology.”
Duncan e-mailed a friend in late 2006: “[Beck] really, really tried to get away … using going to NY to be in Alice Underground He told me he wanted to leave the cult desperately, and this is what they do when someone knows that.” She was referring here to her perception that the Church of Scientology had been harassing her and Blake. “Never heard of these people. This is completely untrue,” Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw told the Los Angeles Times.
“They are furious because he valued our way of life far more than Celebrity Center sex trash,” wrote Duncan.
While the missive may be tainted with Duncan’s increasing paranoia, the Scientologists’ “Celebrity Centre” is real. Housed, according to their Web site, in a “Hollywood chateau” in Los Angeles, it caters to the sect’s celebrity members, which famously include actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, both huge donors to the organization. (Scientology claims 10 million members worldwide.) A representative for Beck said he did not know whether Beck was a donor.
By “sex trash” Duncan may have been referring, crudely, to widely disseminated but unsubstantiated rumors that Scientology pressures its followers to remain in the church by threatening to make public their past indiscretions. What is true is that members submit to the questioning of “auditors” who draw out their fears, secrets, and guilty memories in an effort to “clear” them. The church has acknowledged in the past that auditors’ records are kept in confidential files.