Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cold winter days

Looking west across 86th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside. 12:00 AM. Photo: JH.
January 5, 2009. Cold, winter days, fair and mild in New York. The town’s still not quite back from the holidays. The traffic on the main avenues and cross streams were even sparse at times.

Casey Johnson, an heiress to the vast and extensive pharmaceuticals fortune,
was found dead yesterday in Los Angeles. She was thirty years old. Her death comes on the heels of another young Hollywood celebrity, an actress named Brittany Murphy.

Casey had been renting the guest cottage on the property of a longtime family friend in West Hollywood. It was as if she'd come home to get out of the fray. Her life over the past couple of years had grown increasingly frenetic and even notorious in her public behavior.

When she was bad, she was a nightmare. A monster. A brat. A disaster waiting to happen. All those things. And when she was good, she was a sweet child. An intelligent girl named Casey. Who ran into trouble as she moved into womanhood.

Casey Johnson, 2003.
I’d known her, known of her, since her early teenage years when she was a friend of Nicky and Paris Hilton in their early Southampton days, the summer kids coming of age. From this writer’s pov and age, it was watching a new world. Many of the young teenagers had a personal freedom of choice that my generation (and all generations that came before) never had at that age.

It was somewhat jarring to the senses. There was a group of them hitting the late night clubs on Noyac and Route 27. It was a kind of “dare” for a lot of the girls. Paris seemed to be the one who had the fortitude or gumption or curiosity or whatever you want to call it, to get out there. That was considered somewhat “scandalous” in the “neighborhood” that she’d been out in a club at 2 a.m. Whether this was true or not, that was the story going around. And around. She was playing another version of the Lolita role. Remember that? And having her picture taken. All these girls loved (and love) having their picture taken.

That was, we now know, only the beginning of celebritization of Paris Hilton, teen-age daughter of the hotel heir. No one then would have believed that this child would make millions with the image that was first created in those Southampton summers. Paris turned out to be a cultural icon for a generation. I received her parents’ annual Christmas card this year with the entire family, lined up together, as they have been since way back when. Still together; always together. You look at Paris now and you see a clever woman who made a career in show business (and outside it) as a personality.
The Hilton family Christmas card, 2009.
There were a lot of girls who’ve followed the path that Paris blazed. Tinsley Mortimer comes to mind instantly. Most of the girls eventually withdrew from the scene, or outgrew it, or it outgrew them. Or the drugs and booze stepped in to lead the way.

Casey on meeting was docile and sweet and slightly shy, at least to this adult, a contemporary of her parents. She seemed to become a subject of difficulty as she got into her later teen years and had more independence and mobility. For others, she was contentious and prone to menacing. As if something had taken over her personality.

Cornelia Guest and Casey Johnson, 2008.
Like Paris Hilton, her public image was linked to the family fortune (which in total is far greater than the Hilton family fortune). Everyone knew she was an heiress. Unlike Paris, she was independently wealthy. The thing about the rich is this: the good news is the bad news. It just is. Like the title of Dominick Dunne’s last book: “Too Much Money.” It becomes its own kind of substance abuse. Even many of us poor slobs know that truth from occasional experience. In fact, America is now suffering the withdrawals from such a thing.

There were stories in the late 90s that Casey was having problems with her mother who was divorcing her father (after a long marriage). Her move to Los Angeles was a declaration of independence. It was said that there were problems with her father. I’m talking the party line now. I don’t know what and if there were any problems with either parent but it was a typical teenage rant on some levels.

Family problems aside, L.A. was the lure. It was where many of her well-heeled contemporaries were moving because of the party scene and the fabulous weather (and the movie and TV stars). It was where Paris Hilton moved (actually Paris was just moving back to her home town). Hip. Cool.

Hollywood’s an alluring place, just like New York is, especially to a young person first going out into the world. But the culture is different. LA’s exotic, naturally sexy, the sun, the beach, the starry nightskies, the balmy weather, the hotties coming and going. Movie stars, cocktail bars, shiny cars. It’s all superficial; I-loved-ya-honey-but-the-show-closed, yes, and the who-cares? That’s seductive. Especially to a young person growing up with a lot of time and a lot of money.
Clockwise from top left: Casey Johnson, Natalie Leeds Leventhal, and Alexandra Lind Rose, 2008; Casey in 2003; Casey with her father, Woody, 2004; Casey with Nicky and Paris Hilton, 2003; Bijou Phillips and Casey Johnson, 2004; Nicky Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Casey, 2003.
In the last few years we’ve learned from the columns that Casey had come out as a lesbian and was carrying on torturous (for somebody), arduous relationships with other young women who had a lot of time and (someone with) a lot of money. We also learned she adopted a child, a little girl whom she named Ava.

I don’t know what her relationship with her mother or her father was at this point. Estrangements between parents and child are common in families, far more common that many are willing to confide. And almost just as often, they heal. Both of Casey’s parents remarried after their divorce. Woody Johnson has started a second generation family with his young wife. And Sale Johnson married TV personality and former Minnesota Viking, Ahmad Rashad.

By age 30, now a subject for the tabloids and little else, Casey wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was a grown woman, a single mother with child. And looking much worse for the wear. But for the sweet child still dwelling somewhere within, hers was a face now bloated and distorted from extensive cosmetic surgery, from which she was looking neither younger or older but instead like someone harassed by demons. Los Angeles for Casey was what Los Angeles could always be for a certain type of young woman who goes out there to make her way. Nathaniel West wrote about it. So did Raymond Chandler. A bad turn. A dead end. A sadness. May her sweet soul now rest in peace.
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