Dying In Obscurity's Not Just Tragic When You're Famous

Illustration for article titled Dying In Obscurity's Not Just Tragic When You're Famous

In the days since girl-group singer Estelle Bennett died, heartbreaking details of her life have come out that make Dreamgirls look sugar-coated.

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As one of the founding members of the Ronettes - and lead singer Ronnie's older sister - Estelle was crucial to the group's early success. A student at FIT, Estelle helped define the group's signature bad-girl look - described to the Times by a contemporary as "really, really short skirts and...big, big, big hair" - which, in combination with their racially-mixed makeup, gave the Ronettes an exotic appeal for much of America. At their height, all three Ronettes were sex symbols living a glamorous life.

However, the group's breakup was devastating for Estelle. Ronnie married Phil Spector and later reformed the group with new backup singers. Estelle, meanwhile, began suffering from schizophrenia and was hospitalized with anorexia. Unable to care for her daughter, Estelle was occasionally homeless and the article describes periods during which "she sometimes wandered the streets of New York, telling people that she would be singing with the Ronettes in a jazz club.

When the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, her family

worried that the ceremony would overwhelm her, so one of Ms. Spector's current backup singers performed in Ms. Bennett's stead. But before the concert Ms. Bennett did give a brief acceptance speech. 'I would just like to say thank you very much for giving us this award,' she said. 'I'm Estelle of the Ronettes. Thank you.'

What's so deeply sad about this story is how very unshocking it is: we are used to former stars descending into squalor, and even more used to mentally ill people suffering in obscurity. The dramatic arc of someone who was known to us and then descended into such hardship tugs at our heartstrings mostly because it involves us; it tarnishes something we thought or remembered and so, for us, has added pathos. "Riches to rags" has a place in the narrative; mental illness and its quotidian degradations seldom do. Estelle Bennett's story is tragic not because she was once prosperous and famous; it is tragic that she was a person in pain, with a system that couldn't help her. We wish her peace - and, incidentally, thank her for some great music.

Estelle Bennett, a Singer for the Ronettes, Is Dead at 67 [New York Times]
A Life of Troubles Followed a Singer's Burst of Fame [New York Times]

DISCUSSION

angharad-old
angharad

Absolutely heartbreaking. I think part of the issue with celebrities is the tired "tortured artist" expectations. There's something about the way that we glorify pain and mental illness as a means of creativity, forsaking entirely creativity that arises from something other than pain. I tend to dislike quoting people, but Ursula K. LeGuin said it better than I ever could:

"The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else."